Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Love letter

I want to write a love letter (well, not like that) to some of Paul’s students. The kids are mostly Moroccan, their backgrounds vary, I do not pretend to know the half of it. I’m reacting only to what travels home. Here’s the latest. Paul tells me about a student—a girl who’d talked to him about Virginia Woolf. She said she loved To the Lighthouse, loved Mrs. Dalloway (though her best friend couldn’t get through it). “I’ve read those too,” says Paul. “And The Years and The Waves—my wife spent a summer reading only Virginia Woolf for a grad school course.” Paul said she looked at him like, “You can do that?” I don’t mean anything like the stereotypical scene (you fill in the blank: old informing young, white informing dark, west informing east)—I only mean to notice and celebrate a cool little moment of revelation. Revelation because maybe your math teacher (who is a man) also reads Virginia Woolf and likes her, or there are people somewhere out there who get together expressly to talk about what they’ve read, and it’s what you’ve read too—that there are places and people beyond your immediate known world who resonate with you like you never knew was possible.

Paul said he was feeling glum the other day after one of those classes that makes you question the whole enterprise. He was sitting in the little back room off his classroom organizing his mind (as my best cousin Bill would say)—and a kid pokes his head in to ask if there’s a quiz next period. No. No quiz. “Are you OK, sir?” “Yeah, you know, just tired—that’s all,” says Paul. Not three minutes later, Paul said, a tumultuous gaggle of kids storms the tiny room:

“High-five, sir!”
“We heard you weren’t feeling so good!”
“Are you doing better?”
“Are you sure you don’t want to give us a quiz?”

Such a sweet outpouring, I was in a weepy way by the end of his telling. I love and lean into that genuine desire for connection. (That’s how I read it. I can’t tell you how many stories I hear from various teachers about how “My maid threw out my homework,” or “My driver forgot to pack my backpack,” or “My parents are gone for three weeks to Europe.” These are the most mild of the batch.)

So the other day Paul handed over our house copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (through much of which I unabashedly wept) to the same girl who loves Virginia Woolf. She comes in the next day and says to him, “Why did you give this to me!” This is how Paul begins the story and at this point I’m like—huh??!! “I didn’t study for my test!” the girl goes on. “I started and I couldn’t stop.” Earlier in the week, Paul had given Olive to a kid who wasn’t taking the quiz—took from his hands the kid’s Blackberry which he shouldn’t have had in class anyway, and replaced it with Olive. He said the kid loved it. “He’s a reader,” Paul adds.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Practice. Practice. Practice.

In my perseverating way I have been wringing my hands over the last two posts—is it that depressing here? Am I that down low? Is it just the F month? And then comparing my thoughts with the blog of another teacher—she’s here with her almost-three year-old daughter, just the two of them. She writes in a lovely way, her way, and observes some of the same disparities I witness here too: the poverty, the wild wealth, the prostitution, the posh hotel and club scene: as she says, the poetry and potential that is any city, anywhere. She references Whitman, his song in praise of humanity and New York, includes photos of the neighborhood and its people and her daughter navigating all of it. The view was familiar (the hanut, the alley across the way, the woman who sits on the sidewalk with her son who has Down’s Syndrome)—and also very much her own.

That little moment (reading her version, thinking about mine) taps a gear that has long been in motion in me. Do you want to read on? Don’t if you’re only sniffing for things Moroccan. And read on only if you like falling through the trap-door of someone else’s adolescent self, and you don’t mind the familiar dark. I struggle with how much that I already don’t like in myself am I passing on to Hazel? I struggle with those unprofitable comparisons with someone else’s life, someone else’s way (or, because of where I am in my own head, what I perceive that way to be in comparison to mine). On another friend’s blog (I’ve known her since high school; she’s an assistant professor in comparative literatures, an Arabic specialist)—she mentions briefly her gratitude to her parents for endowing her with a confidence disproportionate to her talents, such as they are. Self-deprecating, yes—but she is indeed talented, and funny, and will articulate your pants clean off. (You will be complicit, and yet not feel naked.)

I’m reading Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott’s instructions for writing and living. It reminds me that I saw her two years ago—she was in public, but privately. I was in the balcony of the Berkeley Repertory Theater watching Carrie Fisher rollick through Wishful Drinking, on a date with myself while Paul hung out with Hazel. Right before intermission, Anne Lamott’s brother Steve Lamott (I only later put it together to figure out his identity) was invited, first-name-plus-last-name, up onto the stage from the fifth row—for audience participation involving a life-sized Princess Leia doll. To open the second half, Carrie Fisher re-invited him back up to receive a “you were so game with that blow-up doll!” thank-you gift and to take a birthday gift back to “Anne”—who was there, I could see, sitting almost beneath me. Carrie Fisher didn’t say her full name, but I was guessing, especially since I’d seen a dread-locked distinguished-looking woman in the lobby. Then Carrie Fisher led us (a mostly-full theaterful of people) in a round of happy birthday. Kind of odd, but interesting. They must know each other somehow. (Famous women with lots to say whose dads were famous too?)

Lamott’s tone is wry and wise—you know that voice? And she’d had that soft presence in that public space when she was being private—though maybe, as I think of it now, there was an inaudible little rushing in-take of breath, an invisible shimmer of recognition all around her as she moved, graceful, through the intermission lobby. And she can tell a story. A friend back in the States, when I said I was reading her, said “kind of loony and high maintenance.” Which is also true. When my friend said that (chatted that—typed it) I realized I’d been clinging to Lamott’s ribbon of words—a little tight. I realized I’d been reading into her work my own desire for a mentor, some external force that validates and gratifies and encourages (and one that’s not my dear folks—Hi Mom and Dad!). She also, at every turn, exhorts the irreplaceable and all-important act of showing up at your own desk. Practice. Practice. Practice.

Cut to the music building, Hayden Hall, far southwest corner of campus, the large second-floor classroom that looks north. 1987. Mr. Appling, the music teacher, says to me (I am fifteen), “You cannot drive a car very far in first gear, can you?” He smiles. Sucks his teeth, looks out the window, eyes still smiling. “And not practicing is like staying in first gear.”

Walking with Paul and Hazel at dusk through the flashing traffic last night, a memory floated up from the depths. We’re driving up to Cleveland to see my cousin. I am maybe nine. I sit hunched in the backseat of the green VW bug, low enough so that seen from the outside you cannot tell where my hair stops. I’m using my mom’s comb (plastic, so it rasps a little) and I drag it in long exaggerated gestures through my hair so as to make all the people in the other cars (looking intently at the blond girl in the back seat as they pass us) think that my hair is long, long, long—instead of regulation-shoulder-length. I am happy, as I remember it, working away at this subterfuge. But what a goofy thing to do. Why the elaborate (delusional, pointless) charade? OK.

All that energy expended on what you think other people are thinking, and its twin impulse—all that energy expended on how you think you might measure in comparison to other people. Sigh. It’s a crushing pair when you can’t push them both off, when you can’t let yourself be humbled by another reality elsewhere.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Two days ago, the same day that Hazel and I did absolutely not very much at home except the homemade biscuits that were delicious, I joined a couple of American women from Paul’s school for a Darija lesson at a language center. It was their second and my first. The whole hour I scrambled along after them, an eager, confused puppy unused to the size of my paws and the length of my legs. I felt like I did during some parts of a class on Shakespeare and critical theory in grad school. Or like I did when I was seven and first learning ballet in the huge old elementary school gym with the high caged windows.

Hassan was nice. Lanky, lean, long in his jeans and blue sweater. An open face, energetic, a head of chin-length loose and moving ringlets. Eyes alive. The other women all are teachers (one is married to a Moroccan); so I am busy focusing on the reasons they speak more than I do, and better. At one point I hear myself say, “I’m at home all day with my two year-old!” Meaning, “These guys get to talk with their Moroccan students!” And Hassan just kind of looks at me. And moves on. I felt myself wanting to establish personality. Where did you learn English? Have you traveled to the States? What are your thoughts about French—especially in Morocco? I was born in Carthage—I’m Tunisian! A rush of that sort of thing. I felt like a no-person, kind of—just the receptor. With nothing to hang these sounds on except what I am manufacturing as we go.

He’s teaching us letters from the Arabic alphabet as they come up in our lessons. And it’s not a classical Arabic class—it’s Darija, the Moroccan dialect. So there’s no written version. Classical Arabic is the “real” written Arabic, as I understand it. My point of reference, as far as learning a language (which does not include my gaping regard for Hazel and her acquisition) is middle school and high school French class—chalk board conjugations and memorized dialogues. The visual in that scenario bore some relation to the spoken—and here, there’s no real visual. Or rather, it’s whatever you can phonetically invent to match what you’re hearing. It’s a conversation class, a class to supplement your living of the language—and I’m realizing (as I think I knew before) I have been living in a French world, self-imposed, and was happy leaving it at that. In fact, to be honest, it was Paul who bought and (regularly) uses the Moroccan Arabic phrasebook. I have picked it up—maybe once or twice. Full disclosure.

There was another especially awkward moment when I asked if the shortened version of “salaam aleikum,” in addition to “salaam,” is also “asleh’ma.” Something I have been saying since we got here. Hassan just kind of looked at me, thought for a second. And then said no. I think (in retrospect, and what I didn’t think of at the time) this is my dad’s Tunisian version of the same. I have heard it since I can't remember when. OK. Nevermind. This is Morocco. It was an awkward moment, of course, because I chose to type that word—or take it that way in the first place. I’m over-sensitive. And I don’t think anyone else cared one way or the other.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Morning. Hazel happily on the rug with her stickers and her fierce powers of concentration.

OK. I am in the midst of feeling the passage of time like molasses. I want to go back to the States. I want Hazel to be with family. I want to know where we’re going. I want to be able to imagine the place we’ll land in next July. Paul has faith; I waiver. Standing in the bathroom this morning with the sounds of the city floating in from the high open window and a chunk of blue sky winking at me up there from beyond the rooftop across the street, for a split second I felt that feeling of being in a foreign country, the sunny air alive somehow, time pocketed away and maybe held at bay, a fleeting fiction that reached back to moments with Paul hiking out into a Florentine morning, a high school day in Rennes when I felt good instead of self-loathing, or a moment in Freiburg when we drank good beers in the deep shade of afternoon or held up to the light the minutely-bubbled, unevenly-wrought, lovely Turkish blue-glass tumbler. Family and friends will visit—actually, a rush of visits in the second half of our almost-year. But, God, the time goes slow today.

Just now Hazel refused to put on anything but her undies, which she kicked off when she had to pee and her legs dangled from the seat. And she’s refused to go out, the moment of negotiation overwhelmed by the apathy of the prime negotiator. Then, after a bit of my sitting busy at the keyboard, another tack:

Me: Do you want to go get an ice cream?
Hazel: Yah! I do!

But first she notices that she’s hungry for the rest of breakfast and climbs back up to the table to finish her bread and butter. Lord, girl. By then the moment of movement has passed completely, gone out of her consciousness like yesterday’s fast-flying clouds across the sky above our tiny terrace. Homemade biscuits happen, and then honey, more this and that, coloring and stickers, tricycle and spent aluminum foil tubes. And so the morning disappears, reading time arrives, then to bed for naptime where I can still hear Hazel talking away, singing, rearranging her guys, saying the alphabet, not sleeping. Are we both in the same place?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where you’re coming from

I have been to Paris before. Coming from the States when I was 15. Again when I was 17. Then that same school year from Rennes; by then I was 18. And in the early spring of 1999—with Paul—on our way to Italy and everything after.

This time, different. From a francophone country back to France is different. Marrakech to Paris is not the same as from JFK. Nor, of course, is traveling (sans the second parent) with a two and a half year-old. Hazel l-o-v-e-d the barriers and ropes and spaces between at all ticket counters and customs desks—see-sawed her way through and under and around (and peed in front of the ticket counter at Orly on our way home, dear girl, where I left the light yellow puddle exactly where it pooled), joyfully careened with shouts of glee and great swooping circles of her arms through any wide open space she could find, turned the curving metal and plexiglas airport direction sign into her “car” and, for awhile, refused to come out to go to our gate. Then—quiet bliss. She slept the three hours home.

Three hours—that’s it. Most surprising was the speed with which we passed from one country to the other and back. I’m conditioned by the American precluding embrace of oceans—and the oceans of acreage between. At home three hours gets you halfway to Cleveland, or to Boston if you’re starting in the middle. To another country only if you’re close to an edge, north or south.

But what I mean really is that it was a weird sensation coming from where I’m coming from—did I expect this?—to move through this city (the beautiful part of it, not the part that looked like any city does with the architecturally dead space beneath overpasses and the grimy places near highway entrance ramps)—this city of even cobbles, graceful lines, gold statues sailing skyward from the tops of carved buildings, open spaces designated for children, the self-cleaning talking public toilets. Odd after these last seven months in Marrakech. The difference in faces—more variety. The un-crowded buses, a metro. Many fewer people speaking Arabic. As we passed a café I watched, in the span of a second or two, a woman keep one eye and a hand on the open page of her book while pulling a cheese-strung bite of French onion soup to her lips (across an ample bosom bared enough to reveal at least that), and a guy at the next table with a bright orange t-shirt stamped San Francisco, California in black. We ate an expensive meal on the Champs Élysées in a restaurant full of people drinking wine with lunch, a sea of tables full of groups of all sorts—women and men together. Lots of black boots and belted black coats and blue jeans, and one blonde ice-queen clutching several swank shopping bags with mobile phone pressed to her ear, squinting delicately up the sunlit street above a tickling fur ruff. Walking past the Porte Saint Denis outside the apartment where Céline grew up, she pointed around us and in English said, “You see all these Asian women standing around? They are all prostitutes.” I kept noticing them there during the week, dressed for the weather in boots and furred coats, leggings, standing about in doorways and at curbside, checking phones and looking up and down the sidewalk, talking with one another. One evening at dusk as we came home from the Louvre, a woman smiled at Hazel and me from her doorway, a beautiful warm smile out of made-up eyes and lipsticked lips. Same feeling as here—maybe some of these women are just waiting for a friend? (Assumptions, always, on both sides).

The apartment was full of maroquinerie—brass and silver trays, framed photos of the Jardin Majorelle, a leather pouf, embroidered cushions, silk sofa covers, a silver service for dispensing incense, tiny boxes in thuya wood. During our week stay the teenage son of a friend from Marrakech (she is French, converted, her husband is Moroccan) came for a couple days so he could attend an art school forum (“There’s no real art school after high school in Morocco,” he said). And another friend, a Moroccan woman who has made her home in Paris for thirty-nine years (she is a house cleaner), came and went throughout the week like family. And this is what I felt my eyes were opening to—this easy passage, if you have the money, between former colony and former colonizer. Céline and her mom told the story of their florist—“We knew him when he first came from Morocco and had a tiny stall! Now he has a huge store, a big business.” What assumptions did I have before? I don’t know that I thought at all about that tangle of complicated story that of course must form the bulk of the connection between France and Morocco—the innumerable families of mixed heritage—the years of interaction. And where will Céline’s daughter choose to live? Even posing the question makes me wonder about my own fascination with where you are (Now we’re in Marrakech)—does it matter? Who determines what it says or means—that you live in one place or another? And why are you where you are?

We touched down in Marrakech under heavy evening skies and stepped from the plane onto a tarmac already spotted with warm rain, which turned into a regular downpour by the time we made it into the waiting car (Céline’s husband). Turning onto the main road back into Marrakech, our headlights caught a herd of sheep and their shepherd hurrying across the spattering pavement—in dark wet rush hour. If I’d been looking for a way to capture exactly the difference between Paris and Marrakech, here was my image. It makes me wonder about the innumerable lived moments, lost because there is no such thing as an impartial and omnipresent eye that divulges if you ask: what was that general thinking, in 1912 or so, when he came to Morocco to claim it for France and build roads and lay down train tracks? That was the frame I was inside—here is the seat of colonial power, here is the colony.

There was a lot of chocolate in Paris and a lot of it in Céline’s mother’s apartment, so in some ways it was a relief to leave the epicenter of all that Hazel desires. And it heartened me that she ran to grab slices of cucumber (dressed in Paul’s mom’s sour-sweet vinaigrette) within minutes of walking through the door.