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By Seema Reza
I work things out in my dreams. My brain seems better able to work things out in the absence of my effort to guide it. A year ago, I had a vivid nightmare that a child-sized demon was trying to force her way into my bedroom. I pushed on the inside of the door, and she pushed from the outside. In the midst of this effort, I realized I did not have strength enough to keep her out nor did I have any weapon with which to overcome her. The thought occurred to me very clearly: the only weapon I have is kindness. I opened the door and faced her. She was more terrifying than I could have imagined—horror movie scary, with blackened eyes and bloodied mouth. I took a breath and steadied myself, forced myself to look directly at her.
I asked, Are you hungry?
She nodded, and I led her through my dark apartment, trying to act natural, as though she were an ordinary houseguest. I switched on the light above the dining table and gestured to a chair. She sat and I poured her a glass of milk. In the fruit basket were two bananas. One brown, spotted and half broken open, the other perfectly ripe, closed, yellow. I hesitated and thought: She’s just a demon child. She wouldn’t know the difference, I could give her the broken banana. But I reminded myself: this is all you’ve got. I gave her the good banana and as she ate it and drank the milk, she turned into a regular little girl, scared and small and not at all threatening. Still in need of kindness. Though her humanity was obscured—by my fear or her hunger, though my kindness was borne from my own desire to survive, she was there, waiting for me to recognize myself in her.
What damage could I have done if I had acted out my fear as violence?
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
Rich imagines the range of women young and old—the range, perhaps, of future and prior selves—who come to her words, thirsty, seeking recognition and possibility. 20 years prior, in her 1971 essay “When We Dead Awaken,” Rich wrote, “It’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful. This awakening of dead or sleeping consciousness has already affected the lives of millions of women, even those who don’t know it yet.” Our greatest obstacles in the work of repairing a broken world are not those who seek to defeat us—they have acknowledged our capacity, and in doing so have fortified us. Our greatest obstacles are those who are apathetic—those who insist upon keeping the bedclothes up over their faces, breathing only air that is warm, air they have breathed before.
That the kind of apathy and closed-down denial, our difficulty in looking at what we’re doing to our world stems not from callous indifference or ignorance so much as it stems from fear of pain…we are called to not run from the discomfort and not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage or even fear and that, if we can be fearless, to be with our pain, it turns. It doesn’t stay static. It only doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it.
To avoid this grief, many people remain under the bedclothes. They trade the forest for pine-scented candles. But not us. Something has woken us from our slumber. It is uncomfortable to be awake in a sleeping world. And we have work to do. We do this work for the sleeping, but we also know that this work is in many ways in opposition to them, designed to shake them from their somnambulism, to burst the thin skins of their spheres of comfort. They must be woken gently. We must speak to them in their language, meet them where they are and encourage them to slowly peel back the comforters to expose their eyes, their mouths, their necks and shoulders and arms and hands. Now when they do, it is likely they will feel cold and tired and more afraid. If this is the case, we should redouble our efforts, and by that I mean: move more slowly, with more kindness, hold them closer.
Or it is possible they may feel the opposite—suddenly wide awake, sweating beneath the covers, they may feel the urge to leap to standing with zeal. This too carries risk, and we must caution them to keep seeking the truth they contain, not to ignore the brokenness they have woken to recognize within themselves. It is likely that each of us here has been guilty of this ourselves. Once we’ve woken to it, outrage over the world can be much easier to sit with than looking at our own brokenness, and how it is affecting the people around us. Outrage can be a different set of bedclothes, another place to hide from oneself.
Surviving the work of changing the world requires that we face ourselves, that we tend to our own cracks and fissures before the pressure of the work causes us to shatter. In 1942, Muriel Rukeyser wrote:
In time of crisis, we summon up our strength. Then, if we are lucky, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.
Everything we did before we began our work prepared us for it, and everything we will become will build on who we are today. We have strength, though it’s not the same strength as that of the things that terrify us. Each of us has our own particular talents and those are what we must use to continue make change in the world. Aristotle: Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.
Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano states, “Utopia is on the horizon. When I walk two steps, it takes two steps back. I walk 10 steps and it is 10 steps further away. What is Utopia for? It is for this, for walking.” As we walk, as we work, as we solve, the needs of the world will change. As we respond to the particulars of the terrain, become more ourselves, the talents we have will also change. This is the terror and beauty of life: discovering what it is we contain. This constant unfolding, the love of learning, our expanding love for this imperfect world and our imperfect selves.
After a conversation with my then fourteen-year-old son, I wrote the poem “Hate Academy”:
You know things I did not teach you, teach me things I don’t know
about the Knights of Camelot and Abraham Lincoln
tectonic plates and the remote control
Read this, you say. Read this. You hand me a book I haven’t read,
open to a passage about the British Hate Academy, an idea born
to prevent shell shock soldier’s heart PTSD
desensitizing young men by showing them war
—teaching them to crave kill before they know the cost
you read over my shoulder, shake your head, waiting. Certain
this is yet another thing I simply do not know
I close the book, inhale, unsurprised. They still do this.
I hide my fingers in your hair, you put your head on my shoulder,
tears form in the corners of your eyes. I watch
an innocence I had forgotten leave you.
I press my lips to your forehead, say, It doesn’t work.
Not for any length of time. That’s why it hurts when they come home.
I whisper a promise I cannot keep:
We will end wars with love
You look up at me and half-smile, kiss my cheek, mistake this
for an innocence of my own. Again, the burden
of telling me what you know and I don’t is upon you.
It won’t work, Mama. There’s too many of them.
I tell my sons: pick a corner of the world and make it better – just take one corner and work on that. That will be enough. I tell them that, but sometimes when I look at the size of the world and the scope of its problems, problems I’m not working on, I feel like my corner is too small. In my wakefulness I am porous. I learn about the world and the myriad ways it is broken and feel overwhelmed. Many evenings, I grieve. I think about the rivers filled with industrial run-off, prisoners being mistreated across this country and across the world, refugees suffering, the wars erupting, the brokenness of our education system, racial inequality, workers being exploited, the pervasive loneliness of urban living, the poisoning of our bodies and minds in the interest of convenience. I think about these things and I feel as though my work is so small it will make no difference.
But then I remember that there are good people solving problems I cannot solve, reading books I haven’t read. There are people stretching across the world in all directions making powerful change in the world, more than I can mention by name—I imagine you, reader, are one of them. If each of us wakes the sleeping, there will be far more of us than there are of them. This is our work. Whichever corner of the earth we focus our attention upon.
A version of this essay was delivered as the Spring 2016 Goddard Graduate Institute Commencement Address.
Seema Reza is a poet and essayist and the author of When the World Breaks Open. Based outside of Washington, DC, she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care and socialization among a military population struggling with emotional and physical injuries. An alumnus of Goddard College and VONA, her work has appeared on-line and in print in Bellevue Literary Review, The Beltway Quarterly, HerKind, Duende, and Entropy, among others. In 2015, she was awarded the Col John Gioia Patriot Award by USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore for her work with service members.