More Than A Strike: Women’s Day and the Sweet Spot

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International Women’s Day brings with it a pot pourri of feelings for me. Some pleasant, rose-like, delicate, joyful, and uplifting (I went last night to a local production of The Vagina Monologues and was reminded once more of how wondrous it is to be female), while others are malodourous or sickly, bits of old sock and rancid cabbage that have fallen in with the fragrant twigs. There are so many challenges women face, from physical aggression and violence all the way through unequal pay and sexual harrassment in the workplace to the subtle disdain expressed in daily interactions with people who think less of us because of our gender.

About halfway through the morning I remembered the housework strike. Yay! I thought – time to put my feet up. Things didn’t pan out as I thought, however. My husband was still working on the house (we’ve been living in a building site for the last six months, and for four months before that he was working harder than he’s ever worked, learning on the job, to turn the ruin we bought into a home) and I had been out a lot over the past few days, so there was a build-up of chores that had come to a head.

So we struck a deal. Yesterday I had a fair bit of housework and even gardening to do, and today I’ve struck. Is it weird to hang my apron out of the window now? People might think I’m just being absent-minded.

To be honest, I have to give thanks that my husband cooks a lot, does a huge amount of childcare, washes up frequently, and when he attacks the kitchen or bathroom he stays up late listening to talks online while he cleans and leaves it like new. On top of that, he supports me working (even though with the kids my hours are limited) and his money is, as he says, my money. So striking isn’t exactly an urgent need for us, even though I like the idea of standing in solidarity for so many women who don’t enjoy those conditions.

On the other hand, a housework strike has the interesting effect of highlighting my own near-robotic cleaning and tidying behaviour (although you wouldn’t know it to see my house). Having to stop myself from “just sorting this out”, every ten minutes or more often, is hard. Am I habituated to the idea that women are designed to clean? Certainly we’ve programmed ourselves to – and for me that was a long, hard process, mostly because I had so much resistance. So many brilliant things I could be doing instead of menial work! Plus I have a very sore nerve that gets easily prodded when I see men leaning on or expecting women to clear up their mess, even women with whom they have no reciprocal support arrangement.

But the bottom line is that housework needs to be done, and if you don’t do it yourself, you end up paying a woman to do it for you. This does keep a good number of women in employment, even though it’s poorly paid and precarious work. Yet if you educate those women to have ‘better’ jobs, you create a vacuum (how appropriate) at the bottom of the work pyramid.

What ends up happening is that immigrants and people from disadvantaged backgrounds fill that gap, creating a kind of tiered system of care and support that further divides women, but this time on an ethnic or class basis. Can an economy handle everyone being highly educated? The reality for so many university graduates in the US and UK who can’t find anything but internships seems to testify that it can’t.

On a personal level, the ego loves to rail against being obliged to do ‘low’ work, especially if it’s for no pay. This is why Women’s Day is complicated for me: I have to strike (pardon the pun) a balance between empathy for female troubles and awareness of my own ego’s eagerness to demand more for itself. What it really comes down to is that a strike of housework isn’t enough – we need to go on strike from our egos, too.

Yes, the world changes when people complain, especially en masse and loudly (there’s a Spanish saying: ‘El que llora mama’ – ‘He who cries gets to breastfeed’). But on a day-to-day basis, surely it’s healthier to find a way to deal with the rage and resentment that being a woman can generate without letting it eat you up inside or destroy your relationships with resentment and blame. For all the advantages that feminism has brought with it (which I enjoy enough to be able to write this, so I ain’t complaining), there needs to be a parallel campaign to find the sweet spot between working for change on the outside AND on the inside.

That’s what I find so admirable about women, and men, when they are under pressure, in asymmetrical, unfair situations, and instead of falling into hatred and self-pity, allowing that anger to fester, feeding off the illusion of “It’s all his/her fault”, they rise above it, forgive even if they don’t forget, stay calm in the face of hurtful words, keep ploughing forward no matter what is thrown at them, and prove they are the better people. The world is not fair, life is not fair. But there are ways to deal with inequality that, while taking intelligent steps towards addressing that inequality wherever possible, do so with grace and wisdom. The inner peace it takes to achieve this spreads all around, like light from a window on a dark night spilling out and showing there is indeed a garden out there.

 

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Chromatography

image

The lowest arms of the almond tree
hang scrawny, leafless, dark:
a reminder of winter.

I take off my paper sun hat
sweating (why did I wear black?)
sun bleached by a thin cloud veil
pushing the sleeping baby uphill,
4.30pm, July.

He’s poured water over a scarf that
I’ve arranged to shade him
and my red wool bag strap
bleeds pink into the blue.

His muscular eyebrows furrow
beneath dirty blond curls, the boy who was
dreamt of being welcomed by the arms of his
long-departed grandmother
in a Persian aunt’s sleeping head.

“Let us see your hair,” they had urged me;
“Is it real, the colour? Can we touch it?”

I grinned painfully, was their doll for a while,
let them thread my puny brows,
ruthlessly devoid forehead and top lip
of hairs only Iranian women can see.

We European women have been liberated of
facial hair!
I cried inwardly, eyes watering
with each every rip.

(She did do an excellent job.
My eyebrows, in dye, came alive.)

In the women’ section of the bus in Tehran
girls in school uniform laughed
still too pubescent to be allowed
the monthly ritual of a trip to the salon
their black brows luscious and combed
combined with blood red lips.

We got off a speeding fine
en route to Isfahan
because of the “khariji” guests
in the car: the free pass
that Europe grants
and who would rather pay?

“Pesar-e-khariji-e-man!”
“He’s so cute and blond,
he looks just like you!”

My husband says I’m his amulet,
lucky charm in official places,
a signal that he’s a
Middle Eastern Man Done Good.

But there is a ruefulness to his good fortune:
they glare at him like a shopkeeper at a thief.
He asks me not to wear a headscarf
lest they think he’s forced me.

Greedily, I seek out our son’s Asian features
glowing to think he’s struck out from
pork scratching pink
the pasty British skin on
a nose they’ve chosen to
sever from the face of the continent
forgetting the Viking, Saxon, Norman,
Roman and yet more exotic genes.

“¡Qué blanquito!”
How they praise him
for his pallour
to his caramel father’s ears.

A talisman. Not powerful enough to
stop the waiter snubbing his order
sneering at his polite reminder
or when, at the police commissary,
trying to fix my residency
after six years as an illegal American
always treated as though I belong
the Spanish official barked at him
for his papers – in order since a decade ago –
checked them on the system, tossed
the card back without meeting his eye.

(If they only knew
what a nightmare I am to live with
they would see he is my talisman, his patience
my salvation.)

We need to raise colour blind kids!
I rant silently on insomniac nights.
Those of us at the top of this
pyramid of privilege
didn’t rise here because of the
buoyancy of our merit:
our forebears clawed their way up
trampling millions of black and brown backs
and no-one else can rise until we step down because
we are taking up space!

Wash your feet honey:
they’re black with dirt.

Malaga is easy to fly through, I say.
Not for me, says she – they always make me
show under my skirt, my hijab.
Oh! Really? That’s outrageous!
But, you know, she says, drawing a circle
with one finger around her face,
wry Somali smile.

I don’t wear hijab through airports.
Am I being practical, or cowardly?
Would I beat out every last bandit
every ugly, self-congratulating thought
expose their emptiness as
phantom confidences
if I put myself in the same
rocking, overcrowded boat
with the flimsy life jackets
and the leaking hold?

We reach my parents’ house
forbidding black gates,
cornflower blue door.

Beside is a bougainvillea
bursting alternately with
deep fuchsia and
palest green lanterns.

Inside the summerhouse
the dark wood stain has bled through knots
forming irrevocable pools on the blond wood.

“Make me a new sandwich!”
“I took out the avocado…”
“But there’s still a stain
on the bread!”

My daughter is fuming, tearful;
a veil of reddish clay lies over her face
wiped unthinkingly at craft time earlier
and two tears have dried
leaving pale tracks with brown outlines.

Clean your face, honey,
your tears have run brown.

Every story is edited at bedtime,
the blackness accidental, not evil
the lily white princess made ruddy and tanned
her long golden hair darkened
water babies not just cherubic because they’ve been
washed of all that terrible oafish soot but
pure of heart and soul.

At the Jumu’ah meal she asks,
Are angels white?
With exquisite Senegalese women on all sides
I answer, no, they’re made of pure light:
light is all of the colors put together.

But science won’t stop her from thinking it.

Our heads need cleaning! I declaim silently
All these messages upon messages
that make us look down on others!

Black is beautiful. Brown is gorgeous.
Look at her style.

Sweetie, I can’t explain I why,
walls just look better white.

The kids splash my notebook
and the turqouise ink splits
inexplicably to vivid pink

I write my second draft
in indelible black.

Empty Chairs

The empty chairs are not empty
they are fuller than before
when her husband
the father of her four children
did not yet have seaweed in his hair
eyes salted shut
no: he is still there
her heart ripped open is a
window through which to see him
his absence full colour
every time she goes to ask
where she left her keys
if he could chop an onion for her
hold the baby while she goes to the bathroom
he is there, ever-present
she starts each sentence forgetting
and chokes when he remembers he won’t hear
but he does, clearer than before
not distorted by the sea
the distance between his sandy bed
and hers
he hears her weep into the
end of her scarf
into her child’s hair
into nothing, for nothing
could absorb so many tears
and not weep itself
he hears and replies
I wait for you
as death waits for all that live
borrowing time they cannot pay for
It does not seize you
with a cold, skeletal grip
like cartoon deaths do:
death is a hand beneath
cupped to catch us
the ground that followed us
all through our living days
the hand we fall exhaustedly into
when we cannot walk any further
holding without suffocating
only accepting with quiet love
I will wait for you for as long as you need
time means nothing when
there’s nothing left to do but
wait

The empty chairs are not empty
but the hands are
hands that want to be held
to stroke the rough face
encircle the strong chest
those hands are empty
and will never be full again
not for all the gold in Europe

How To Overlap With Your Love

It’s been six months since I got divorced.

In the time elapsed, I’ve met my soul mate, and with the usual Sufi tendency of throwing normality to the wind, we are already wondering when we’ll be able to do our own sort of marriage – albeit more of a picnic affair, with a bit of wedding thrown in for good measure.

Most people will clearly think I am one currant short of an Eccles cake for even contemplating throwing my lot in with a new man, not only so soon after my first marriage was dissolved, but that being a marriage that I’d also rushed into (four months after we’d first met). But there’s been a long, slow evolution in my understanding of marriage, and I’d like to share it with you.

The word ‘marriage’ sends tremors up the spines of most of the Western world. Either it’s a woman contemplating the horrors of bra strap tanlines when putting on a strapless wedding gown, or a groom wondering if he’ll have a panic attack and stuff the priest’s face into the bride’s bouquet, or the in-laws jointly hoping that it’ll be worth the cost incurred and all the hoo-ha generated.

I hope he isn't going to be this annoying for the rest of our lives. I will just have to CHANGE HIM.

What seems to worry us is not so much whether everything is fine now between the happy (though slightly nauseous with stage fright) couple, but how everything will be in the future for them. Most of this, it must be said, is going through the heads of potential brides, often before a potential mate has even shown his face on set. It sounds a something like this:

“How will we earn a living when I have a baby? What if he goes off me when I’m saggy from breastfeeding? Would we move to the countryside? Will I ever like his friends? Where will we send our kids to school? Would we go on holiday to places like Tuscany and the Algarve, or would it be more of a Manhattan/Tokyo type relationship? Where will we retire? Will he be rugged and sporty but tend towards paunchiness and early hair loss later in life? AND WILL I HAVE TO CHANGE MY SURNAME TO ‘BOGIE’??”

Don't lose yours.

In short, the concept of marriage does not mean ‘letting it be known publicly that these two are in a sincere, close relationship and want to celebrate it’, but instead it means ‘the plan of how two people’s lives will be forcibly intertwined forever and ever, mortgaging their souls to the lifelong expectation of wedded bliss’.

Well, maybe you could call me just a tiny bit cynical. I’m certain there are plenty of soul mates out there who are up to their eyeballs in wedded bliss, who are so easy in their togetherness that they don’t ever need to worry about how things will pan out.

It’s true that in the petalled flush of love no obstacle seems too great to somersault. And I’ll bet that if that love is strong and sure enough, it would be so rooted in their reality that the winds of change might knock out a few bird’s nests, shake off leaves, ripen and strike down fruit, but the love would keep thriving. Like two trees that have grown around one another, sheltering each other’s shape. This love does exist. It is rare, but real.

So when does the tingling momentum of love start crystallising into shapes like the Bogies’ imaginary wedding, above? When the euphoria of sharing your life – this present moment – sigues into the plotting of shared lifetimes that stretch away into the future in rows of neat articles, numbered one to fifteen trillion. Now you’re not sharing your lives on the horizontal plane, in every facet, sickness and health, good times and bad, but on the vertical plane, in the undefinable, unplannable realms of what comes next.

The sharing slips into comfortably physical forms. Instead of telling your lover about a funny dream you had about the cat, and a moment of total joy you experienced while watering the geraniums, as your partner listens agog, eyes molten pools of adoration, you are sharing bank accounts, the sofa to watch the telly, a nice bedshirt you rather want to nick off him. Instead of hugging under a cloud of duvet and wishing this moment would never end, you are scheduling activities for later that week: cinema trips, the weeding, fixing a kitchen cupboard door, even (shudder) washing up rotas.

I’ve done it. I’m not immune. It is too easy to ignore what is going on inside when it is nebulous, confusing, unhappy, angry, hopeless, or just plain numb. Some of us have been so well pumped with brainly information that we haven’t got a clue where our hearts are at. So relationships drift into tensions, covered up with plans, thinking ahead, worrying. Stoppering up our ears when our hearts are screaming for attention.

The sane ones nurse their limping relationships back to health by doing whatever is necessary to find out who they are. The really sane ones find out who they are before getting into a relationship, before the surprises happen, the disappointments sink in, the resentments ferment.

Instead of looking for a person who will plug a gap in their personalities, they fill those holes for themselves, from the inside out. There’s no need for dependencies, insecurities, power struggles: you are whole, and when you find another person who is likewise whole, you overlap like two circles of coloured paper to find a new colour in the overlapping Vesica.

So that is my vision of why people would want to get married, why I want to get married again. I feel like it’s already happened spontaneously, and all that remains is to have a party. It is not a state to enter into, contriving it, but one that you might find yourself in already: your present overlaps with his. With trust that you can share anything of importance with this person in your life, the future gleams with bold, vivid blankness.

Heraclitus wrote: “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Time is a river; we don’t know where it’ll take us. But there’s only one way to enter that current, and that’s to step into the water.

How To Overlap With Your Love

It’s been six months since I got divorced.

In the time elapsed, I’ve met my soul mate, and with the usual Sufi tendency of throwing normality to the wind, we are already wondering when we’ll be able to do our own sort of marriage – albeit more of a picnic affair, with a bit of wedding thrown in for good measure.

Most people will clearly think I am one currant short of an Eccles cake for even contemplating throwing my lot in with a new man, not only so soon after my first marriage was dissolved, but that being a marriage that I’d also rushed into (four months after we’d first met). But there’s been a long, slow evolution in my understanding of marriage, and I’d like to share it with you.

The word ‘marriage’ sends tremors up the spines of most of the Western world. Either it’s a woman contemplating the horrors of bra strap tanlines when putting on a strapless wedding gown, or a groom wondering if he’ll have a panic attack and stuff the priest’s face into the bride’s bouquet, or the in-laws jointly hoping that it’ll be worth the cost incurred and all the hoo-ha generated.

I hope he isn't going to be this annoying for the rest of our lives. I will just have to CHANGE HIM.

What seems to worry us is not so much whether everything is fine now between the happy (though slightly nauseous with stage fright) couple, but how everything will be in the future for them. Most of this, it must be said, is going through the heads of potential brides, often before a potential mate has even shown his face on set. It sounds a something like this:

“How will we earn a living when I have a baby? What if he goes off me when I’m saggy from breastfeeding? Would we move to the countryside? Will I ever like his friends? Where will we send our kids to school? Would we go on holiday to places like Tuscany and the Algarve, or would it be more of a Manhattan/Tokyo type relationship? Where will we retire? Will he be rugged and sporty but tend towards paunchiness and early hair loss later in life? AND WILL I HAVE TO CHANGE MY SURNAME TO ‘BOGIE’??”

Don't lose yours.

In short, the concept of marriage does not mean ‘letting it be known publicly that these two are in a sincere, close relationship and want to celebrate it’, but instead it means ‘the plan of how two people’s lives will be forcibly intertwined forever and ever, mortgaging their souls to the lifelong expectation of wedded bliss’.

Well, maybe you could call me just a tiny bit cynical. I’m certain there are plenty of soul mates out there who are up to their eyeballs in wedded bliss, who are so easy in their togetherness that they don’t ever need to worry about how things will pan out.

It’s true that in the petalled flush of love no obstacle seems too great to somersault. And I’ll bet that if that love is strong and sure enough, it would be so rooted in their reality that the winds of change might knock out a few bird’s nests, shake off leaves, ripen and strike down fruit, but the love would keep thriving. Like two trees that have grown around one another, sheltering each other’s shape. This love does exist. It is rare, but real.

So when does the tingling momentum of love start crystallising into shapes like the Bogies’ imaginary wedding, above? When the euphoria of sharing your life – this present moment – sigues into the plotting of shared lifetimes that stretch away into the future in rows of neat articles, numbered one to fifteen trillion. Now you’re not sharing your lives on the horizontal plane, in every facet, sickness and health, good times and bad, but on the vertical plane, in the undefinable, unplannable realms of what comes next.

The sharing slips into comfortably physical forms. Instead of telling your lover about a funny dream you had about the cat, and a moment of total joy you experienced while watering the geraniums, as your partner listens agog, eyes molten pools of adoration, you are sharing bank accounts, the sofa to watch the telly, a nice bedshirt you rather want to nick off him. Instead of hugging under a cloud of duvet and wishing this moment would never end, you are scheduling activities for later that week: cinema trips, the weeding, fixing a kitchen cupboard door, even (shudder) washing up rotas.

I’ve done it. I’m not immune. It is too easy to ignore what is going on inside when it is nebulous, confusing, unhappy, angry, hopeless, or just plain numb. Some of us have been so well pumped with brainly information that we haven’t got a clue where our hearts are at. So relationships drift into tensions, covered up with plans, thinking ahead, worrying. Stoppering up our ears when our hearts are screaming for attention.

The sane ones nurse their limping relationships back to health by doing whatever is necessary to find out who they are. The really sane ones find out who they are before getting into a relationship, before the surprises happen, the disappointments sink in, the resentments ferment.

Instead of looking for a person who will plug a gap in their personalities, they fill those holes for themselves, from the inside out. There’s no need for dependencies, insecurities, power struggles: you are whole, and when you find another person who is likewise whole, you overlap like two circles of coloured paper to find a new colour in the overlapping Vesica.

So that is my vision of why people would want to get married, why I want to get married again. I feel like it’s already happened spontaneously, and all that remains is to have a party. It is not a state to enter into, contriving it, but one that you might find yourself in already: your present overlaps with his. With trust that you can share anything of importance with this person in your life, the future gleams with bold, vivid blankness.

Heraclitus wrote: “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Time is a river; we don’t know where it’ll take us. But there’s only one way to enter that current, and that’s to step into the water.

How To Overlap With Your Love

It’s been six months since I got divorced.

In the time elapsed, I’ve met my soul mate, and with the usual Sufi tendency of throwing normality to the wind, we are already wondering when we’ll be able to do our own sort of marriage – albeit more of a picnic affair, with a bit of wedding thrown in for good measure.

Most people will clearly think I am one currant short of an Eccles cake for even contemplating throwing my lot in with a new man, not only so soon after my first marriage was dissolved, but that being a marriage that I’d also rushed into (four months after we’d first met). But there’s been a long, slow evolution in my understanding of marriage, and I’d like to share it with you.

The word ‘marriage’ sends tremors up the spines of most of the Western world. Either it’s a woman contemplating the horrors of bra strap tanlines when putting on a strapless wedding gown, or a groom wondering if he’ll have a panic attack and stuff the priest’s face into the bride’s bouquet, or the in-laws jointly hoping that it’ll be worth the cost incurred and all the hoo-ha generated.

I hope he isn't going to be this annoying for the rest of our lives. I will just have to CHANGE HIM.

What seems to worry us is not so much whether everything is fine now between the happy (though slightly nauseous with stage fright) couple, but how everything will be in the future for them. Most of this, it must be said, is going through the heads of potential brides, often before a potential mate has even shown his face on set. It sounds a something like this:

“How will we earn a living when I have a baby? What if he goes off me when I’m saggy from breastfeeding? Would we move to the countryside? Will I ever like his friends? Where will we send our kids to school? Would we go on holiday to places like Tuscany and the Algarve, or would it be more of a Manhattan/Tokyo type relationship? Where will we retire? Will he be rugged and sporty but tend towards paunchiness and early hair loss later in life? AND WILL I HAVE TO CHANGE MY SURNAME TO ‘BOGIE’??”

Don't lose yours.

In short, the concept of marriage does not mean ‘letting it be known publicly that these two are in a sincere, close relationship and want to celebrate it’, but instead it means ‘the plan of how two people’s lives will be forcibly intertwined forever and ever, mortgaging their souls to the lifelong expectation of wedded bliss’.

Well, maybe you could call me just a tiny bit cynical. I’m certain there are plenty of soul mates out there who are up to their eyeballs in wedded bliss, who are so easy in their togetherness that they don’t ever need to worry about how things will pan out.

It’s true that in the petalled flush of love no obstacle seems too great to somersault. And I’ll bet that if that love is strong and sure enough, it would be so rooted in their reality that the winds of change might knock out a few bird’s nests, shake off leaves, ripen and strike down fruit, but the love would keep thriving. Like two trees that have grown around one another, sheltering each other’s shape. This love does exist. It is rare, but real.

So when does the tingling momentum of love start crystallising into shapes like the Bogies’ imaginary wedding, above? When the euphoria of sharing your life – this present moment – sigues into the plotting of shared lifetimes that stretch away into the future in rows of neat articles, numbered one to fifteen trillion. Now you’re not sharing your lives on the horizontal plane, in every facet, sickness and health, good times and bad, but on the vertical plane, in the undefinable, unplannable realms of what comes next.

The sharing slips into comfortably physical forms. Instead of telling your lover about a funny dream you had about the cat, and a moment of total joy you experienced while watering the geraniums, as your partner listens agog, eyes molten pools of adoration, you are sharing bank accounts, the sofa to watch the telly, a nice bedshirt you rather want to nick off him. Instead of hugging under a cloud of duvet and wishing this moment would never end, you are scheduling activities for later that week: cinema trips, the weeding, fixing a kitchen cupboard door, even (shudder) washing up rotas.

I’ve done it. I’m not immune. It is too easy to ignore what is going on inside when it is nebulous, confusing, unhappy, angry, hopeless, or just plain numb. Some of us have been so well pumped with brainly information that we haven’t got a clue where our hearts are at. So relationships drift into tensions, covered up with plans, thinking ahead, worrying. Stoppering up our ears when our hearts are screaming for attention.

The sane ones nurse their limping relationships back to health by doing whatever is necessary to find out who they are. The really sane ones find out who they are before getting into a relationship, before the surprises happen, the disappointments sink in, the resentments ferment.

Instead of looking for a person who will plug a gap in their personalities, they fill those holes for themselves, from the inside out. There’s no need for dependencies, insecurities, power struggles: you are whole, and when you find another person who is likewise whole, you overlap like two circles of coloured paper to find a new colour in the overlapping Vesica.

So that is my vision of why people would want to get married, why I want to get married again. I feel like it’s already happened spontaneously, and all that remains is to have a party. It is not a state to enter into, contriving it, but one that you might find yourself in already: your present overlaps with his. With trust that you can share anything of importance with this person in your life, the future gleams with bold, vivid blankness.

Heraclitus wrote: “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Time is a river; we don’t know where it’ll take us. But there’s only one way to enter that current, and that’s to step into the water.