Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Inter/Transnational’ Category

402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

In Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, parenting, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 31, 2017 at 4:27 am

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second short-story collection, opens with an epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne that also provides its title:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.  (from The Custom-House, introduction to The Scarlet Letter)

Like Hawthorne’s children, I had a different birthplace from that of my father, and my son, in turn, had a different birthplace from mine. Do I feel that, as a result, I was raised in richer, more generative soil? I was born in my mother’s city and country, but we didn’t stay there long. For much but not all of my childhood I was raised in my father’s country, though far from the red earth of his coastal home. By the time I was coming of age we had landed on a third continent, far across the the sea and home to neither of my parents, where I was forced to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth. As a result, I will constitutionally and forever question settled concepts of home, country, and belonging.

While I reject the notion that blood and soil (Blut und Boden, that hateful Nazi slogan), race and place, have some sort of mystical unity, I know from personal experience that for some people, place is much more important than for others—that while they may be able to live anywhere (for humans are almost infinitely adaptable) they can only come fully alive in the place where they were born and raised. For them that place will always and forever be home. Some lose their minds, lose their way, even end their own lives. Do we then look at them as failed transplants, as Salman Rushdie describes some of the characters in The Satanic Verses? Should they never have been wrenched from their native soil?

But then, look at Ellis, the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. When she emigrates from Ireland to the United States, she is forced to leave everything that was familiar to her. There is a long, lonely period of adjustment; but then she works for independence and education, finds love, begins to make the unfamiliar familiar, to put down new roots. Returning “home”, she finds that everything is easy in some respects, seductively, romantically comfortable; yet the growth she has achieved in unaccustomed earth has developed parts of herself that ultimately mean more to her.

One must return to “blood and soil,” the sickening chant of the Nazis and White Supremacists as they marched with flaming torches through the street of Charlottesville, Virginia just three short weeks ago. Why was it so chilling? These men—they were overwhelmingly male—had come together to claim that they, the self-defined “White Race”, belonged to the soil of this country as Blacks did not, as Jews did not, as immigrants would never do; and that they were fully prepared to shed blood defending this soil against racially alien intruders. This country was theirs, they snarled, in a way that it could never be mine, that as far as their children’s fortunes lay within their control, they would strike their roots deeper into their own native soil.

I’m with Hawthorne: that soil is played out; and so is that hate-filled song. Yes, we must be prepared to fight to preserve our sacred Earth, but in this century all earth must be unaccustomed. While I hold an abiding affection for the two places on earth that nurtured my dear parents, I myself am a cosmopolitan, even though at times the word sticks a little on my tongue. I want to belong to a place, but I do not. When I see the people forced from their homes by the flooding in Texas and Louisiana, my heart goes out to them, but then I read of the death and displacement caused by the flooding, not just in Mumbai, home to many members of my family, but also throughout South Asia, including Bangladesh and Nepal, and my heart breaks its bounds again. I cannot feel for one people to the exclusion of all the others.

Commuters walking through waterlogged streets, Mumbai (Reuters)

Where does this leave me? A global citizen, facing potentially catastrophic climate change in uncertain times with my fellow earthlings. I’m grateful to my father for having showed me, at a young age and by his example, how to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth; this radical unbelonging is the condition of our age, and it is a condition that will better prepare us, not to soak the depleted soil with yet more blood, but to come together with others for our mutual survival, and that of our planet.

CODA
I once heard it said that one did not feel a sense of belonging to a place until one’s fathers had died there. Well, now my own beloved father has died here in the United States, and though I can scarcely say how I feel, it’s not exactly belonging, but rather, a renewed sense of responsibility to a place that we all must share. Here’s how another revered ancestor, Pete Seeger, put it:

To My Old Brown Earth

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry. 

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine

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389. Exposing Whose Perversity?

In 1960s, 2010s, Britain, clothing, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, women & gender on August 29, 2016 at 12:37 am

3d57c1d7d0a94e46a4d6a300c1dbaf4dYoung people are bound to set and follow fashions as they shape and explore an identity that distinguishes them from their elders. Back in the mid-Sixties when I was at boarding school in India, the Thai boys, who were always ahead of us in India when it came to fashion, arrived for the new school year sporting bell-bottomed trousers, or flares. But bell-bottoms weren’t regulation, and their flares were duly measured to determine whether they were in excess of some official width (that I suspect was invented on the spot). Our Thai guys’ wings were clipped as they were returned to the population. But though their style was cramped and trousers narrowed, they were always and forever our fearless fashion vanguard.

Ironic, isn’t it, that less than a decade earlier the cool guys had been sporting drainpipes. No doubt their trouser legs were also measured and found wanting—too narrow by half. The truth is, clothing is a marker of identity, and therefore must be controlled by those who are in the business of social control. And as long as the authorities seek that control, there will be acts of rebellion to wrest it away from them, whether out in the open or undercover.

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As teenage girls in late-Sixties England, our mild act of suburban rebellion was to surreptitiously fold over the waistbands of our sensible school-uniform skirts as we left home in the morning, instantly shortening them by a couple of inches and giving us that critical edge that our mothers just couldn’t understand. Of course, the authorities had to intervene; but the way they chose to do so backfired hilariously.

We got to school one day to find the prefects awaiting us officiously, armed with tape measures and unable to control their smirks. Apparently acting under orders from the very top, they ordered us girls to kneel in turn, while they measured the length of our skirts from the ground up. For those of us under 5’ 2’, that distance could not exceed six inches, while I think the taller girls were held to seven.

They reckoned without the press: the spectacle was a bonanza for them. The next day, photos of school-uniformed girls on their knees and tape-measure-wielding male prefects (curiously, they were all male that day) bending over them gleefully made several national papers as well as the local ones. How I wish I still had one of those cuttings!

In our case, the prefects were senior boys.

  (In our case, the prefects caught in the act were Senior boys.)

But while purporting to safeguard female modesty, the school authorities only exposed their own perversity with those lascivious images. Their ridiculous efforts to nip our wayward tendencies in the bud only redoubled our rebelliousness, while revealing that the indecency lay, not in our innocent hearts, but in their male gaze.

photo: Vantage

photo: Vantage

A similar fiasco is unfolding in France today with the ill-conceived burkini ban. While purportedly upholding France’s hallowed tradition of secularism, armed police were snapped standing over a woman on a Nice beach in the act of making her strip off her clothing. Far from challenging the control of religious extremists and modeling French social permissiveness, they only exposed their own need for social control. And as we schoolgirls did back in the Sixties, women are resisting. It’s a sales bonanza for burkinis and a warning to any authorities who seek to regulate what people choose to wear: banning will backfire on you.

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385. On Two Girls Running

In 2010s, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, parenting, Stories, United States, women & gender on July 7, 2016 at 12:05 pm
young_horse_lineart_4_ms_paint_by_kokamo77

by kokamo77 (deviantart.com)

The other day I had the same experience twice within the span of half an hour. It was a warm summer’s evening, the Saturday of a holiday weekend with July the Fourth coming up on the Monday, and our usually-quiet neighborhood was humming with activity. When we first moved to this area it was a combination of retirees, empty nesters, and young families. But over the years, as we ourselves have aged, many people have moved on, one way or another, and a number of the once owner-occupied homes have become student rentals.

There is another category of home on my regular walking route up the hill and back, especially after crossing the town line, which has always been a bit of a mystery to me. These houses have always appeared to be empty, even abandoned, as if they were summer homes, or as if their owner had died some years back but the family had not yet gotten around to clearing and selling them. The signs of emptiness are an eerie quiet, absence of light in any of the windows, canvas-covered cars parked in the driveways, overgrown banks and walkways, crumbling stone steps. It is in the front garden of one of these mysterious houses where the untended quince bush lives, the one I always pass on my route, flowering in the spring, and producing a small, hard fruit that I watch developing, ripening, and eventually shriveling and drying out, unpicked. Every now and then, at the end of the season, I pluck one and bear it home with me, feeling a little guilty, but mostly indignant on the quince’s behalf as it persists year after year, valiantly coming to fruit with no one nourishing or pruning it, or appreciating its efforts.

by kokamo77, deviatart.com

But I digress. On this particular summer’s evening, I was driving up the hill, nearing our house, when a young woman  suddenly burst out of a side street not far ahead of me, running at full tilt, and sprinted athletically across the road without slowing down at the curb and with nary a glance to left or right. My heart began to beat fast at the close call and I didn’t know whether to be relieved, angry, or admiring in the face of her youthful abandon, her confidence and invulnerability, her evident muscular power.

Soon after getting home I set out for my evening walk further up the hill. I usually turn around at the town line, where the sidewalk ends, but on this particular evening I continued on a little further. As I approached one of the houses that usually lies empty, I heard music and laughter, and saw holiday lights strung all around the front porch. The overgrown steps had been cleared and swept and the grassy bank was newly mown. Suddenly and without warning an adolescent girl bolted out of the house. Déjà vu! Hadn’t the same thing just happened to me not half an hour ago? But just as I began to tense up in anxious anticipation of her darting out into the street like her predecessor, she pulled herself up short, as if she had hit an invisible electric fence, then meandered leggily round to the back of the house and out of sight.

young_horse_lineart_4_ms_paint_by_kokamo77

This girl aroused even stronger emotions in me. I found myself wondering what had propelled her out of the house as if shot from a cannon, and what had made her come to such an abrupt halt. Instead of the annoyance I had felt toward the earlier runner, I felt sympathy and approval; instead of admiration, I felt protectiveness. Who can forget those times in adolescence when one feels so stifled in a roomful of adults that one must get some air immediately or die, those times when every instinct tells one to get away as fast as possible, no matter where? Then, too, every girl can recall the times when one longs to burst out, but Reason points out that there is nowhere to run. Instead, more often than not one simply settles for some time alone, to simmer down and prepare oneself to face the fraught family atmosphere again. This girl, her family new to the neighborhood, may have bounded outside and then realized that she was in unfamiliar territory; so instead of breaking through into the unknown, she put on the brakes and walked slowly and thoughtfully into the her family’s new back garden.

One part of me—the parent, probably—applauded the girl’s good sense, while another part felt a little sorry that she didn’t have the boldness, and no doubt the foolhardiness, of the earlier, older runner who had so startled me a little earlier. Sure, there was time for her to gain that confidence in herself, but time is not always on the side of adolescent girls; as often as not, they lose, rather than gain confidence as they advance into their teens.

On the other hand, thinking back to the older runner, I found myself wondering what her parents were thinking. Had they not warned her to take care when crossing that busy road? Or perhaps she was in college, living with a group of other students; if so, she was old enough to know better. Even as I admired her athletic physique as against my woeful lack of muscle tone, my exasperation was stronger, since she had potentially endangered her own life and mine. Was my disapproval of that fearless girl greater than my approval of her younger counterpart’s cautiousness? And weren’t all these feelings of mine deeply gendered, despite my feminism and my own rebelliousness at their age?

Adolescent and teenage girls have so much power and potential. They need experience in order to develop maturity and good sense; but we are afraid to give them that leeway. In the name of protection, we continually underestimate them, rein them in, and hold them back, as parents and as a society. And as grown women, we hold ourselves back as well.

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382. What’s Wrong with “Oriental”?

In history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on June 5, 2016 at 12:31 pm

[from megangillman.wordpress.com]

“Perpetuating Oriental Stereotypes” (megangillman.wordpress.com)

On May 20th, 2016, during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, President Obama signed a bill that will eliminate all references to the words “Oriental” and “Negro” in U.S. law, and replace them with “Asian American” and “African American.” U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens, NY), the chief sponsor of  bipartisan bill H.R. 2438, said, “The term ‘Oriental’ has no place in federal law and at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good.”

On hearing the news I breathed a sigh of relief: something that had troubled me on an almost daily basis had now been recognized as derogatory at the highest level of government. This is critically important, because many people, even some Asian Americans themselves, don’t realize it. Just minutes before I read the news of H.R. 2438, I received an emailed reading response from a student on a short story by a Malaysian writer, in which my student used the term “Oriental” to make a sweeping generalization about life in ‘that part of the world’. Clearly the bill has not gone far enough, and neither has its coverage in the media, because they don’t explain why the term is derogatory. It’s not enough to be told, as H.R. 2438 does, that many Asian Americans find it offensive, since this can be dismissed as their problem, their hypersensitivity. Isn’t it just a descriptive term, its apologists ask, like “Westerner”?

CHOP SUEY SPECS

No, “Oriental” is not merely descriptive (and neither, for that matter, is “Westerner”–or, to use parallel terminology, “Occidental”, which, tellingly, is rarely used). It is a term designed to categorize, generalize, dehumanize, and dominate. Let me explain, as briefly as I know how.

3First “Oriental” is an outdated term, based upon a 19th-century colonial concept of race that divided humankind into a hierarchy of racial types, with the Western European (man)–born to rule–at the top: Caucasoid, Negroid, Australoid, and Mongoloid, or Oriental, as it came to be known a little later. These terms have come to be associated with skin color and physical appearance, but also with stereotyped character traits, temperaments, and predelictions (again, with the Caucasian on top). All this has been debunked by scholars across the disciplines as a lot of baloney, and it is now generally accepted that this scientific racism was an ideology conveniently constructed to justify colonization of the “lesser breeds” by the naturally superior ones. In sum, “Oriental” was invented by Europeans for Europeans.

Second, “Oriental” is a blanket term covering huge swaths of the world. It has been used to refer to the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia,  and given the tremendous differences among all these regions, is on the one hand  almost completely meaningless and on the other, extremely harmful in encouraging people to lump them all together in their minds. For example, the student I mentioned above who wrote on the short story, Leng Lui Is for Pretty Lady, failed to notice that it was set in Hong Kong, its protagonist was from the Philippines, and its author Elaine Chiew, is of Malaysian origin and has lived in Hong Kong and the United States, but now lives in London. To tell the truth, I myself failed to tease out these specificities while teaching the story, which is about the predicament of women who must leave their families and go abroad to work as maids in the global economy. My failure, and the term Oriental, allowed the student to conclude that this was “what it is like to be a woman living in servitude in an oriental country,” as my student put it. First, it generalized about the condition of all women in “the Orient”, and second, in allowing him to disregard the fact that there are women working as maids in exploitative conditions all over the world, including Europe and the United States, it performed the work for which, according to the late Edward Said, Orientalism was designed: to create an inferior Other which is the polar opposite of the so-called West, upon which the “West” projected all that it did not want to accept in itself.

Third, with regard to the term “Orient”, better known as “the East”, I ask the question, East of what? The answer, of course, is East of Greenwich, England, which Britain at the height of its empire declared the central reference point for measurements of longitude, for which Greenwich is the arbitrarily designated Prime Meridian. Everything East of Greenwich is East and everything West of it, West. But we are now a world with many centers, and it is time we changed our language to reflect this new reality. Now that Britain is just a small island again, with little power if it does not attach itself to the new global superpower, what sense does it make for people in its former colonies to continue to see it as the global Center and  themselves as marginal, always obliged to look Westward for success and self-affirmation?

yellow-face.com

[yellow-face.com]

imgresFourth, “Oriental” is used to demean, divide, and exclude. It is natural for people to see themselves as the central reference points of their lives, and it is understandable, if not desirable, for people to want to identify themselves with power. Perhaps that is why one still finds Asian Indians in the United States internalizing Orientalist stereotypes and identifying themselves with  the “Caucasian” rather than “Oriental.” More than once I have heard  Indian students of mine declaring that they are not Orientals, which prevents them  from making common cause with other people of Asian origin under the useful umbrella of Asian American. And yet U.S. vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, the Supreme Court ruling of 1923, made it clear why it is in their interest to do—and in fact, to extend themselves still further to identify with all people of color. This was during the long period of first Chinese and Asian Indian, then Oriental Exclusion, when no one of Asian origin was allowed to immigrate to the U.S. or gain U.S. citizenship. The complainant in the Supreme Court case, an Asian Indian, had claimed that he should be granted citizenship because Indians are Caucasians, not Orientals. The judgment acknowledged, that Yes, he was Caucasian, but No, he could not be granted citizenship because he was not white, revealing the true purpose of these racial categories.

46912a66e79e4982da5469f3484b4341Calling someone an Oriental, even if their families have lived, worked, paid taxes, and died in the United States for generations, excludes them from full Americanness by relegating them firmly to the status of permanent outsider, unassimilable alien, regardless of their American citizenship. It designates them as Other, not one of Us, not from here, and in the end neither equal nor fully human. Just a glance at the stereotypical images of “Orientals” that are rife in the visual media makes this abundantly clear. These stereotypes also ought to make it obvious why the term is so hurtful.

My final point—and forgive me, I am an English teacher—is about the politics of grammar. “Oriental” is an adjective, not a noun. So to call a person “an Oriental” is to define him or her based on physical appearance and an imaginary repertoire of pre-ordained traits seen as belonging to that racial category. It is derogatory, dehumanizing, and high time for it to be defunct.

I hope it is now clear to you what’s wrong with “Oriental.” Hooray for the passage of H.R. 2438, and Thank You, Congresswoman Grace Meng!

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380. Zoe

In blogs and blogging, India, Inter/Transnational, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 30, 2016 at 6:21 pm

Blogging from A to Z
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ZZoe
is a Greek name meaning Life. (Think of zoology, protozoa, zoetrope (or zootrope).) Zed is the last letter of the English alphabet, but Zeta is not last in the Greek. Perhaps the Greeks knew that the goal is not to be found at the end.

What is the end—the goal, the purpose—of life? Life itself. Life and its secret meaning, toward which so many seekers strive, only to find, in the end, that they had had it all along, if only they had stopped to notice. What do the Upanishads say? It is Sat-Chit-Ananda: Sat (existence), Chit (consciousness), and Ananda (Bliss).

Life brings me joy.

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379. Young People

In blogs and blogging, history, Inter/Transnational, parenting, Politics, Stories on April 30, 2016 at 11:45 am
UMass students calling for social justice (masslive.com)

UMass students calling for social justice (masslive.com)

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YI remember having a passionate argument at age 16 with Richard, a philosopher-friend of my parents, who was middle-aged to me then, but in fact was only in his early thirties at the time. In what seemed to be impossibly patronizing tones, he assured me that I should just wait until I was a little older, and I would no longer feel so strongly about the state of the world. This only infuriated me all the more, and I screamed back that I would, I would; I would always feel passionately about it.

Now that I am older, almost twice as old as he was then, I think that Richard was both wrong and right. I still feel strongly about the state of the world, and, if anything, he feels more strongly about it than he did then. But the quality of that feeling is different, since I am battle-scarred, world-weary, and just plain tired. Young people throw their whole selves into a cause with all the idealism and energy of youth, invincible, unheeding of their own human frailty. I remember, as a 20-something anti-nuclear activist, preparing to occupy the construction site of the Seabrook nuclear facility, and declaring that we would set up camp there indefinitely, establishing a model alternative community. I must have believed this, although I can’t imagine how I could have imagined that the authorities would allow it for a moment; and they didn’t.

Students all over India in solidarity with students at JNU (Hindustan Times)

Students all over India in solidarity with students at JNU (Hindustan Times)

But I tell this story not to patronize my younger self. We accomplish impossible tasks when we believe that we can and act upon that belief, without hesitation or self-doubt. For a long time I was under the impression that “the younger generation” was selfish and self-involved. But in fact the current generation of people in their teens and twenties are more socially aware and politically active than any generation since the Sixties. Young people are on the move the world over, intensely concerned about the state of the planet, putting their bodies on the line for social and environmental justice. If at times I express irritation with them, it is really because I see in them my younger self, and hope against hope that they do not fall prey to the same mistakes that I—that we all—made at their age.

As we grow older and face our own mortality, we look to the younger generation as the hope for the continuation of the efforts we will not live to see completed. Their energy energizes us, their idealism inspires us, and their naïveté fills us with a protective tenderness. We need them; they are our future.

Model for multi--generational living in Germany  © picture-alliance/dpa

Model for multi–generational living in Germany © picture-alliance/dpa

The saddest thing to me is the way the elderly in many societies today are segregated with other old people, rather than living in multigenerational communities. I watched a documentary once about a community in Southeast Asia whose old people who were the happiest of any other group of elders on earth. Why? Because they had a useful social function, meeting the children from the school buses and looking after them until their parents came home from work. It was a win-win-win situation for everyone: them, the children, and the parents. I hope that we can work to create more and more such communities for ourselves and our age group.

When my son was in his twenties I used to look forward to the youthful energy in the house when he came home at holiday times. With the instantaneous communication of social media, he had hardly been home for a minute when his friends would start calling, dropping by, and sleeping over, with me fussing over them, serving snacks, and pulling out sleeping bags, as I used to when they were schoolchildren. iPhones were hooked up to the speaker system, and their music filled the house again, while the joyful noise of their boisterous play was music to my ears. Now they are setting up homes of their own and the house is quiet most of the time, the occasional visitors chatting sedately over tea with the subdued energy of my generation.

Let me make a couple of things clear: this is not a nostalgia piece, neither do I crave the presence of the young merely to vicariously recover my own lost youth. Furthermore, we oldsters still have plenty of fight left in us, and I would not want to give the impression that we simply want to let go of our responsibilities and pass the world’s problems on to the next generation; no, we will work for positive change as long we have breath in our bodies. But we mortals crave continuity, and the creativity and commitment of the young gives me hope for the future. And joy. Young people fill me with joy.

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378. Xýpna / Ξύπνα

In blogs and blogging, Family, Greece, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 29, 2016 at 10:43 am
[from amyapplebaumsalbums.com]

[from amyapplebaumsalbums.com]

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XDuring the nearly-three years my family lived in Athens, we memorized part of a story in a Greek children’s reader we had. Whether it was because it was one of the few Greek passages he had learned by heart or, more likely, because it was one of those inside family jokes (see TMA#162 Heuch, Heuch! (and other family lingo), I remember my Dad repeatedly reciting the first few lines of the piece, about a mother waking up her daughter to get ready for the first day of school. Here’s the Greek (apologies in advance for any errors) with transliteration and translation:

«Ξύπνα!», μου είπε, «παιδαkι μου. Σήμερα το σχολείο ανοίγει. Πρέπει να ετοιμαστούμε, για να πάμε. »

« Xýpna ! » , mou eípe, «paidakí mou . Símera to scholeío anoígei. Prépei na etoimastoúme , yia na páme . »

“Wake up!” she said, “my child.  Today school opens. We need to get ready to go.”

[from huffingtonpost.ca]

[from huffingtonpost.ca]

Since then, I’ve always remembered the Greek word for Wake Up!: Xýpna! And perhaps because, not being a morning person, I struggle to leap up and embrace the day, I am drawn to songs and poems that call upon us to do so:

Bob Marley’s always-inspiring Wake Up and Live.

The lovely Greek folk singer Nana Mouscouri’s Xypna Agapi Mou (Wake Up My Love). (By the way, here’s Nana and a very young Donovan singing Donovan’s In the Morning, better known as “Colours.”)

Yusuf Islam (then Cat Stevens) singing the beautiful Morning Has Broken, sung to the equally beautiful words by Eleanor Farjeon.

And perhaps my very favorite crystal-clear wake-up song, Utha Utha, Sakal Jana, sung here by Asha Bhosle.

In several of these songs you’ll see that waking up refers not merely to dispelling one’s morning grogginess with a strong cup of tea, but to nothing less than Enlightenment, living fully and alertly as our best selves and embracing every moment of every new day.

Xýpna!

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376. Verandas

In blogs and blogging, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 27, 2016 at 7:22 am

IMG_2021

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V-1In the United States they’re more commonly called porches. In India, though, and around much of the world, they are veranda(h)s—roofed, sometimes partly enclosed porches that extend from a house at the ground-floor level.

The word’s origin is disputed, but it comes to English from the Hindi varanda and other Indian languages and is also found in Portuguese and Spanish, so it is one of the many that entered the English language during the colonial era.

We have a hundred-year old New-England farmhouse with porches in front and back, but I prefer to call the front extension a veranda, because as soon as I set foot in it I breathe different air and seem to enter a different world altogether.

Situated on the north side of the house, it is a cool, peaceful place. A small sign reminds visitors to remove their shoes. Cane chairs and a comfy couch present themselves, evoking a slower past. Stress and striving fall away. The whir of ceiling fans shuts out the hum of traffic on the road outside and the workaday world recedes. A green shade; a homecoming.

Verandas of my youth were shady, protected spaces neither in nor out. Drinking water sat cooling in earthenware jugs on our back veranda, which looked out on an old hammock slung between two jamun trees.

While the veranda beckons, the workday ahead of me demands attention. I reluctantly bid it farewell, for now. But life is as it should be on the veranda. I intend to sit quietly there, alone or with friends, fans swishing slowly, through many a long, hot summer evening; the definition of happiness.

Not long now.

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375. Unions

In blogs and blogging, Education, history, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on April 26, 2016 at 2:40 am

cropped-FINAL-GEO-LOGO-SMALL

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UI’ve just returned from a 25th anniversary celebration of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), UAW 2322, a union of graduate students that organized and went on strike to gain recognition while I was in graduate school. We went from abjection to dignity through standing up and demanding that our work be recognized as the work it patently was, and not merely as part of our graduate education. We also won year-round family health insurance, fee waivers, a decreased workload, and a substantially increased rate of pay per course.

I am extremely thankful for the trade union movement, for the struggles of workers in the past to secure rights, benefits, and working conditions that I take for granted today. Andrew’s grandfather was a union man, and I have written before about how, when his union won a half-day on Saturday, he began taking his son—Andrew’s father—on a special outing on that half-day. My mother has always been a strong supporter of unions, and it was a great disappointment to her that by the time her workplace finally got around to unionizing, she had technically been promoted to management. As for me, I have been a member of three different unions over the years, the IWW in the 1980s, GEO in the 1990s, and the MSCA over the past 10 years. Without them, I would be insecure, lonely, alienated, and broke.

UnknownWhetstone Press was organized as a three-person worker’s cooperative. We collectively owned and operated the business and gave ourselves excellent health insurance but very little else; we couldn’t afford it. A significant portion of our business involved printing for non-profit organizations who would only use a union shop, so it was imperative that we unionized, but at a grand total of three, we were too small for just about any union to accept us.

Except for the Wobblies. Their slogan was One Big Union, and no one was too small for them. We paid a pittance in dues and became proud members of the Industrial Workers of the World. I used to enjoy reciting the preamble to the IWW Constitution, which begins:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

imagesThe funny thing was, of course, that in our case we were the workers as well as the employers! The irony wasn’t lost on us; it just gave us all the more delight in declaiming the “revolutionary watchword, ‘abolition of the wage system.’” That worked, since we didn’t make any wages to speak of and had few prospects of doing so in the future.

I tease gently, but make no mistake, I do not mock, for the Wobblies, the union of Joe Hill, have a noble history and I’m proud to have been a tiny part of it for a short while.

Now I’m thankful to be teaching at a public university whose faculty is unionized as the MSCA, under the umbrella of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. It’s strange indeed that we are forbidden to strike; everyone knows that the strike has historically been the principal weapon and ultimate recourse of a union. Then, too, not all professors think of themselves as workers. But we are workers nonetheless, and I’m glad of the solidarity across disciplines in a system that can be stratified and competitive.

Unions bring me joy. Sing it!

Solidarity Forever

Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
For the union makes us strong
.

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374. Thrift Stores

In blogs and blogging, Britain, clothing, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on April 24, 2016 at 5:30 pm
The Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home

My favorite thrift store: The Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

TAs we know, there’s something about newness that adds value to a product like nothing else. A newly purchased car, for example, drops in value by a couple of thousand dollars the minute you leave the car lot. Even before it has left the lot, it starts dropping in value if it has sat there unsold for more than three months. I once bought a Toyota Camry that had been leased for two years for nearly five thousand dollars less than it would have cost me new, and it was still under warranty! That trusty car kept going for ten more years of heavy use and required very little maintenance. But in an economy where price is equated with value, if something is going cheap there must be something wrong with it.

There is a special stigma about buying and wearing cheap second-hand clothing, even if it is of excellent quality and has hardly been worn. Perhaps it has a whiff of charity about it, as if wearing used clothing suggests that one is the abject recipient of some wealthy person’s discards and hand-me-downs. I can’t quite identify my feelings when, as a ten year-old girl, I saw another girl wearing the outgrown dress, one of my favorites, that my mother had given away. In a society where most people cannot afford to buy new, storebought clothes, then wearing used clothes signifies that one is poor; and, in a consumer capitalist society, at any rate, there is something shameful about that. If one has money, one is supposed to buy new things continually and discard the old, even if there is still plenty of life left in them.

too-much-stuff

However, in societies glutted with “stuff” and a world of spiraling waste and dwindling resources, people have begun to value re-used things, and even to reject consumerism. In this environment, used clothing stores—called thrift stores in the United States and Canada, charity shops in Britain, and op shops (apparently) in Australia and New Zealand—are flourishing. People frequent these shops for a variety of reasons: to save money, of course, to hunt for a bargain, to benefit a charity, to step outside of the culture of wastefulness, and to pass on their unneeded stuff to someone who could make better use of it. I love thrift-store shopping with a passion rivalling my love of second-hand bookstores (and surpassing it when the thrift store carries books as well).

My favorite hometown thrift store is the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home, my home away from home, you find me there so often. I don’t even have to buy anything; it’s fun dropping in when I’m out on errands, just to see if I can spot a “find.” It’s small and well-organized enough for me to be able to duck in, to have a scout round, and be back out in 5-10 minutes. It’s kept impeccably by a dedicated group of volunteers, with the stock in excellent condition, spotlessly clean, organized by category and size, rotated frequently, and replaced completely from season to season, and even a design consultant setting up a special theme—music, for example, or gardening, or back-to-school gear—every few weeks.

oAnd the finds! I have found Indian dupattas, fine china, a hand-tailored silk suit that fits as if it had been made for me, and a full set of professional-quality drawing supplies—for mere pennies. I have found delightful gifts that have saved me from my most-dreaded activity, Christmas shopping (and when all else fails, a gift certificate to the Hospice Shop gives terrific value). But most of all, I have found clothes: clothes for me and my whole family, clothes for everyday wear and clothes for work; nearly-new designer clothing and shoes that draw admiring comments from colleagues. Which of course, I immediately undermine by telling them that I picked it up at my favorite thrift store and then disclosing the price tag. I never know when to keep my mouth shut and simply bask in the praise. A visit to family in England is never complete until I have trawled the high street for charity shops, dragging my long-suffering cousin Sue with me and asking for her seal of approval before I clinch a deal. And, back in the U.S.A., whenever I happen to drive through a small New England town in the middle of nowhere, it’s always a thrill to check out the local thrift store and hope to find the occasional hidden treasure.

a recent find at the Hospice Shop

a recent find at the Hospice Shop

I’m cheap, and not ashamed to say so: thrift stores make me happy.

(Though I must admit that they don’t solve the problem of “stuff.”)

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