War and Peace

I finished War and Peace a few weeks ago, after about nine months of reading. It wasn’t difficult, just too easy to put down. I pushed through because hey, it’s lauded as one of the greatest novels of all time, and I wanted to see if, when all was said and done, it lived up to the hype. Welp, not for me.

To start with, the book opens with a protracted party scene, which introduces us to mostly unimportant characters and is incredibly boring. It goes on for over 100 pages, which in the scheme of the book is hardly any time at all, but for an opener it’s really no fun. I read it carefully too, expecting I’d have to remember everyone, but much to my later annoyance found out that most of the people didn’t matter. Although come to think of it now, it was a good primer for the rest of the book, since there are countless characters weaving in and out of sight, some reappearing after I’d decided they weren’t going to show up again.

The ending isn’t great either, as there are two – yes two – epilogues, the first setting up the remaining characters with a more or less rosy future, and the last indulging Tolstoy’s love of philosophising on the nature of  life, free will and causality. This was another thing that I didn’t like about War and Peace. I’d be in a good part, happy that I wasn’t having to work so hard to move forward or enjoy what I was reading, and bam! Tolstoy would pull up and start talking directly to me about how historians are ridiculous, giving too much credit to the famous men from the 18th and 19th centuries and their role in starting, winning or losing wars and setting revolutions in motion. Or you know, I might be in a not so good part – the war bits weren’t my favourite haha – but it would be made even worse by Tolstoy’s analysis of troop movements, generals’ actual versus perceived qualifications and explanations of why Napoleon is vastly overrated. Yawn. Can we get back to the story now? I love historical fiction generally, and I liked that War and Peace helped me learn a little about the wars between France and Russia, but a little more excitement and less academic musings please!

Another issue I had was that I didn’t care enough about any of the characters. There are a handful whose lives we follow closely throughout the novel, but even those ones couldn’t get much emotion, other than annoyance, out of me. Pierre for instance is the bastard son of a count who inherits his fortune and finds himself thrust into the social spotlight. He struggles interminably with the meaning of life and how he ought to be living, but he’s so snivelly, indisciplined and changeable that there was only a brief period, somewhere in the early to middle part, when I found him actually likeable. He’s also incredibly out of touch with reality, following around the Russian soldiers as if on a field trip, endangering his life – he literally stands in the middle of gun and canon fire – with no intention of actually fighting. Who does that? Why did no one kick him off the field/send him home? How is that even believable? Even describing it now is making me frustrated. Then he gets it into his head that he’s going to be the one to take down Napoleon. Pierre the assassin. Good grief.

Then there’s Natasha, who I dislike more for the way she’s written than her actual character, if that makes sense. She’s the stereotypical flighty, shallow, beautiful girl, who plunges into a deep depression after a heartbreak that she brought on herself. It’s understandable, to an extent, but Tolstoy writes her as sick to the point of death, for months, which I found too dramatic, especially given the way things happened. In general the women in War and Peace are two dimensional caricatures: the beautiful mercurial one, the pining-away-for-the-love-she’ll-never-have one, and the pious-to-the-point-of-perfection one. The other women we learn about are much the same, with two busybody mothers and a greedy socialite. The men are much more interesting, complicated and given credit in ways that the women aren’t. None of this is surprising, given when War and Peace was written, but it still bothers me that people today completely gloss over this fact when they give it such high praise.

Another frustrating trope is the noble savage. War and Peace revolves around the aristocracy; peasants are written as simple beings needing guidance, but there’s an especially repugnant storyline involving Pierre and a fellow POW. Platon Karatayev is a grown man in his late 50s, but Tolstoy describes his attitude on waking as “a child wanting to play with his toys straightaway” (p. 1079, Briggs 2005) and tells us that the great thing about his conversation style was that he “never thought over what he had said or worked out what he was going to say” (1079). If that’s not ridiculous enough, somehow Karatayev could “never remember what he had said even a minute before” (1081). He “enjoyed no attachments, no friendships, no love in any sense of these words that meant anything to Pierre, yet he loved and showed affection to every creature he came across in life, especially people, no particular people, just those who happened to be there before his eyes” (1080). Karatayev is the most vapid, uninteresting, impossibly unreal human in the entire novel, but somehow crowned as simplicity and truth personified, the “epitome of kind-heartedness and all things rounded and Russian” (1079). He plays a small role, but every time he was on the page and Pierre interacted with him in all his condescending glory, I cringed.

In spite of all this, I wouldn’t say that War and Peace was a bad read or a waste of time. The prose is pretty straightforward (I wonder how it feels in the original Russian), but I came to enjoy its clarity. I liked following the development of characters in such detail, over years of time. At least as far as the men were concerned, they have interesting problems to solve or goals they’d like to accomplish, and we see them react to the various challenges and opportunities life throws at them. As their experiences change them, my feelings for them often changed as well.

For a good while I was expecting something to happen, for there to be a big climax or problem that needed solving, the usual climb and descent of a novel. Then I realised that War and Peace isn’t that kind of story; it’s more of a window into people’s lives and relationships, like real life, with people that you can’t stand, that you just tolerate, that you root for and who disappoint you. It’s impressive in its detail and grand in its scope, painting a picture of a particular time in history and a class of people that are entirely gone today. While I wouldn’t go around recommending it to people, I can see how its subject matter and ego made possible its status in the canon of great literature. To put my earlier criticisms in perspective, I picked up a few shorter books while I was reading, since my copy is big, bulky and not great for carrying around. None of them were as good. Since I’ve finished the best thing I’ve read is The Rosie Project, which, although a very different type of novel, I wouldn’t put in the category of lasting literature. Overall, I’m glad it’s done and I can check it off my reading bucket list, and though I can see how another read through could help me understand it more and maybe enjoy it better, I don’t see myself picking it up again – I read in the introduction that one writer has read it as many as 12 times! :O

(Post script: I ran into a Russian grandmother on the subway platform one day while I was reading. Her 7 year old grandson had a copy of War and Peace and I made a comment that got us talking. She was thrilled to see me with my copy, and promised that I would laugh and cry and have the greatest time. As I was 3/4 of the way through I knew this wasn’t the case, but I just kept that opinion to myself.)

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The Morning Before Thanksgiving

The morning before Thanksgiving was one for the books. It’s going to go down in history as one of the most dramatic of my life. Or maybe my life in New York. Either way, completely unforgettable.

It started early, at 3.55am, when I woke up to get ready for my trip to Pittsburgh. I was out the door 20 minutes later, and 6 minutes after that waiting on the subway platform for the A train. I was eager, wide awake, and hungry. I had packed a banana and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to eat for my breakfast later in the morning, but decided to eat the banana right away instead. I opened it once I was on the train, and left the peel on the seat beside me. I didn’t think it mattered much since it was so very early; there wouldn’t be enough people travelling for it to be in the way of someone’s seat.

I started reading my book, Cutting for Stone, and a few stops in heard a man trying to get the attention of a woman in my section. It could have been me, or it could have been the woman sitting perpendicular to me. We were the only two in our part of the car. Both of us ignore him. But then he says, “Sitting next to the banana!” and it was obvious that he meant me. I continued trying to ignore him, but his voice was this ridiculous falsetto. Was he putting it on, as part of a bizarre attempt to woo me? Or did he really talk that way? (I hope it was the former, because going through life with that voice would be hard for any person, let alone a straight black man.)

The banana comment was the beginning of an endless stream of chatter. He showed remarkable skill at keeping a conversation going in spite of the fact that I was almost entirely uninvolved:

That’s how you eat? I’d like to take you out, that’s how you eat.

Just in case it wasn’t obvious enough that he was talking to me, he refers to my bright pink Jansport –

With the backpack. You a teacher or something? (no response) You do hair? (Maybe because he thinks my hair looks nice? It’s in two large twists.) If you were my teacher would I bring you a banana, instead of an apple? (Finally I give in, thinking that was cute. I nod.) Yea? That’s how you like it? (Oh my goodness, what have I done?! Completely mortified, I gaze squarely at my book, ears closed.)

I got a job. Get your boyfriend a job too. Get him off the couch. (No response.) Oh he got a job? A big job? (Studiously examining the page in front of me.)

He a cop? You like that? Tie you up? (Ohh my gosh! :O Is he kidding? I continue looking down, and perhaps my face revealed something of my horror -) Oh is that too much? (Yes, most definitely. Please be quiet, how are you still talking?)

Says something about bitches and wanting things and how I’m not like them. How he’s deduced my character and quirks from our non-conversation is beyond me. I don’t know what he read in my face after that statement – 

I’m sorry I don’t mean to curse. Too much profanity.

Then his stop comes up. 

Have a nice day. Just cuz you beautiful. You and the woman in the orange coat. I want both a y’all.

The woman in the orange coat jacket has had her head tucked into her chest, like a sleeping bird, this entire time. Neither of us acknowledge him as he goes out.

This guy was mildly entertaining, with his high pitched voice and persistent attempts to engage me in conversation, but he made me feel extremely exposed with his sexual comments. If it weren’t for his voice, I’m sure I would have felt more uncomfortable, even threatened.

After he left the car, I felt bemused, and relieved that I could get back to reading in peace. I would have been happy just to have this scene to write about: women’s lives are constantly interrupted because some strange man or another wants our attention. I think there’s an actual negative impact on our lives and the things we’re able to accomplish because of this. I wrote down a few quotes from his monologue, planned how I wanted to share what happened with friends and settled back into my book. I had a long ride to the airport ahead of me.

Barely 20 minutes later another man disrupted the quiet of the train. This guy was on the opposite side of the car from me, but yelling loudly enough that there was no mistaking what he was saying or how angry he was feeling. Initially, I ignored him. There were only a few other people in my section, all men, and they continued sitting silently too, half-sleeping. The man was spewing profanities, dropping f-bombs every other word. Maybe he was one of the mentally unstable homeless, or maybe he had an anger problem and someone upset him; either way, I knew the best thing to do was to lay low and wait for the situation to pass.

We got to the next stop, and though I thought about moving to another car, it would’ve been hard to make the quick transition with all my bags. I hoped/expected Enraged Man would leave, but he remained, and a few more people got on. One, a 20something man with long, neatly styled dreadlocks, well dressed in all black, sat down next to me. He looked around, slightly confused, as he became aware of the situation. After a second, he settled in to wait Enraged Man out too, like the rest of us.

But he only got more upset.

Someone nearby him must have said something to him – bad move – because he directed his attention toward them. A whole new onslaught of profanities ensued, and people started shifting. I looked up and realised that he was shouting at a white woman. I assumed she said something to him about calming down. A black man near her got up, moved to confront Enraged Man. Then two other men a few seats away from him also got up. There are now four men bracing themselves for a fight on a fast moving train. My anxiety level rises. This is America. Any one of those men, or someone else in the car, might have a gun and feel like they need to use it. That would be the stupidest thing of all to do, but with emotions as high as they are, I wouldn’t be surprised.

“STOP FUCKING STARING AT ME!!”

“MIND YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS! THIS IS HOW PEOPLE GET MURDERED!”

WHAT?!? If I was concerned before, I’m seriously frightened now.

The man opposite me shifts in his seat.

“I ain’t gonna touch her! I ain’t gonna touch her! I do this (mimes talking with his hand) to shut y’all up.”

The man opposite me shifts once more, rises. He takes a few steps toward the drama. The man in black next to me moves around too, also preparing for a fight. I think to myself, please, both of you, stay seated and calm. Don’t bring the fight over here.

The man next to me says to us, “I’m just trying to keep calm. Not smack his ass.” No one responds, but I wonder to myself – Where is your bravado coming from? How is it possible that you’re thinking of taking this man down while I’m here concerned about how he could seriously hurt anyone of us on this train?

“THIS IS MY FUCKING TRAIN!!!”

“STOP FUCKING STARING AT ME!!”

The atmosphere is tense and the air is almost ringing with nervous energy. The man in black says, more to me and the man opposite us than to Enraged Man, “Please don’t come this way, because I’m gonna smack the shit out of you.”

We all continue to sit in silence, waiting for the next stop. I’m hoping that this guy will get off. No one is directly engaging him anymore, at least as far as I can tell, but still, he’s carrying on with his rant.

“Old faggot niggas can suck my dick. Fuck all y’all niggas!”

This last, hate-filled declaration seems to be the end of his diatribe. He continues cussing and carrying on, but at a much lower voice. The atmosphere relaxes.

Then we reach our next stop, and after waiting a minute or so for the conductor to get us going again, he announces that the service has been terminated due to a rail problem. We all need to disembark. At 5.15 in the morning. There begins the second pressure-filled part of my day, as I deal with a repeatedly dying phone and missed uber rides in a battle to get to the airport on time.

Overheard in Transit (2)

November 17th

“Ladies and gentleman! I have an announcement to make! Tomorrow, I am getting married (someone starts clapping) to March! My paper clip!!”

This was bizarre. It was around 10.30pm and I was coming home from a wonderful dinner with a friend. The train pulled into the station and as I and other passengers were leaving, this mid 20s woman started shouting. She was able to grab the attention of the entire train car – who doesn’t want to hear about a wedding? – create feelings of goodwill and excitement, and then leave us stranded on an island of confusion and bemusement. Did I really hear paper clip? Why is it called March? At the end of her announcement our collective bewilderment was palpable, but the woman continued chattering away with the person she was travelling with as though nothing had happened. I should note, she was sober (it appeared) and sane. I guess this was just her idea of a fun time.

 

November 17th
“We didn’t even eat lunch yet, I’m not eating two lollipops!”

I was sharing a train car with a group of students who looked to be around 12 or 13. Everyone – even their teachers – had a lollipop, the hard candy kind with gum or chocolate in the centre. The lollipops caused much happiness and conversation. For example, before this boy’s declaration, some students were jealous of another boy who had somehow managed to get two lollipops. They went running to a teacher to ask for a second one for themselves and were denied. They came back, telling Two Lollipop that he was in big.trouble., but clearly still disappointed not to be in the same boat. A few minutes later, after some  more lollipop-related conversation, Proud One Lollipop made the above exclamation. It was cute, funny and unexpected. Here are all his classmates clamoring for as much candy as possible, and he’s steadfast in his desire to… preserve his appetite for lunch? Not overdo it on the sugar because it’s too early in the day? I can totally relate though. I’ve long held strict ideas about what to eat and when – breakfast for dinner? unacceptable! – I’m only just coming around to that idea. If I were in this class I’d be almost like Proud One Lollipop, the difference being that I would want a second lollipop, I would just save it for later. 😉

 

November 16th
“I wanna figure out a list of things to do before the end of the world. I wanna be the first nigga from the hood to skydive.”

One black guy to another black guy, and I’m not sure if by “the end of the world” he meant in general or as a result of Trump’s election. In any event, another thing on his list is to rent a really fast car and drive over 200mph.

But back to skydiving – I started paying attention after this comment because I wondered, why does he think he would be the first guy from the hood to skydive? In the history of skydiving? Seems completely implausible to me. What about Lil Wayne, Rae Sremmurd, Fetty Wap… I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a trap rapper has gone sky diving. Or even someone like Rick Ross or DJ Khaled. Turns out I didn’t need to look that far, because this man’s friend had already been sky diving. When he said that, Bucket List flipped. I can’t remember what he said exactly, but there was arm flailing, wow-ing and other expressions of amazement and enthusiasm haha. What does his surprise say about the kind of expectations he (and other people like him) have for his community? I know that as a society we’re working towards equal opportunity for all, and we like to admire the progress we’ve made in that regard, but this exchange shows us that there’s much work to be done; not just in creating opportunities, but in making pipe dreams seem entirely ordinary.

 

November 16th
“I have too many addictions.”

Ohh my goodness. I was sitting opposite two old women, who looked to be in their 80s. Both of them were white, and one of them seemed very prim and proper. Her hair was in a cute skim-the-shoulder bob, she was dressed conservatively in a skirt and sweater, and I noticed a wedding band. She could be anyone’s grandmother. The other woman seemed like more of a free spirit. Unlike her friend, her clothes didn’t have any grandma patterning. Her hair was a little wild and tangly, and she was missing a good many teeth. This is the woman who said she had too many addictions.

Already an odd pairing, I was shocked when I heard her declaration. What in the world could Grandma have been suggesting to Not-Your-Grandma?! And what addictions did Not-Your-Grandma have? Do they explain her lamentable lack of teeth? I’d like to think that Grandma said that she should try a sleeping pill, but that has more to do with her appearance than any context clues.

I was also surprised by how cavalier the women were with their conversation. They were speaking on the loud side, with Not-Your-Grandma the louder of the two. I could tell they were discussing personal subjects, and was trying not to listen to their conversation, but there was no missing “I have too many addictions”! I’m not one of those people that are good at discreetly observing the person your friend points out to you, so I doubt that I was at all subtle when I looked up from my book in shock (although I know I tried to be haha). This didn’t bother either of the women at all, and they continued their mysterious conversation. Maybe they’ve lived in New York so long that they’re totally comfortable having private conversations in public. Maybe their age is what made them so bold. Either way, what a thing to hear from octogenarians!

When the Male Gaze Feels Deadly

The other day  I went out for a run to the park. Just after I left my building, as I was crossing the street, a school bus passed so near behind me that I gasped out of fear. Now, I’m used to drivers cutting it close with pedestrians, and vice versa. There’s an audacity about walking and driving the streets of New York that you observe almost immediately; I quickly developed a similar attitude. There have been times when a car has come close  enough to me that I thought I could lose a toe, but even in those instances I wasn’t frightened enough to make a sound.

The driver and I made eye contact as he completed the turn. Our faces were close enough that I could see his lascivious grin and I realised he was staring at me through the entire manoeuvre. I’m sure he saw the fear on my face and heard me gasp. It did nothing to dislodge his grin. In that split second the truth of the incident became clear. That idiot had put my life at risk so that he could get a closer look at my body. I couldn’t believe it!! Some men are such pigs! Honestly!

I kept moving, and fought not to let the nasty image of his face ruin the rest of my jog. On my way back into my building though, I let myself remember what had happened and think on it a little bit. That man gave into his lustful desire to get as close to me as possible, in spite of what that meant for my own physical and emotional safety. He consciously decided to make an extremely tight turn in order to rake his eyes over my body and satisfy his lechery in the only shallow way that was possible. My own personhood, sense of safety, comfort and volition weren’t for a second considered. His actions were inconceivably selfish. I was two steps away from the opposite sidewalk, and I was afraid I was about to be knocked down!

That moment was a clear example of the inequality of the sexes in our society, and the reality women work so hard to explain: our bodies, our entire selves, are seen by many men to exist only for their enjoyment and service. We are so much more than that. We are full, complex, fierce beings just as much as men are, and demand the same respectful consideration. I’m well used to catcalling and unsettling stares, but rarely do I feel so completely objectified; so entirely at the mercy and whim of a man. It was sickening; violating.

I Thought I Met a Nice Lady

A friend of  mine got married a few weekends ago, and I was in her bridal party. At the rehearsal dinner I met many of her family members and family members-to-be; everyone was friendly and open, eager to find out who I was and my connection to the couple, and to share their connection with me. I spoke with one aunt in particular for a fair amount of time. We exchanged stories about our backgrounds, I told her where I went to college and grad school, and what I’m doing now. At the end of our conversation she asked me – Are you here legally?

What the heck?!! Are you kidding me??!

That wasn’t my reaction at the time. I was a little discombobulated, but I quickly recovered and said something too nice and accepting like Yes! or, Of course! Then I guess we went our separate ways.

I don’t remember who this offending person was, though I wish I did. I’d like to think that my lame response was the result of a defense mechanism, me wanting to preserve the happiness of the evening and the weekend, knowing that if I allowed myself to get upset it could have ruined things for me, and disappointed my friend if I shared what happened. Maybe that’s why I didn’t call this woman out for being rude, inappropriate and inhospitable. Or maybe I’m just slow. That’s equally as possible haha. In any event, the moment came back to me a week later, and I simmered with outrage at her audacity.

I texted a friend –

cvconvo

You can see me getting more and more upset as I think about what happened. My friend voiced one of my thoughts too – did the woman actually expect me to admit it if I was here illegally? And if I had, what was she going to do? Personally deport me? That very moment or even the next day, thus missing the wedding?

What a silly question, any way you look at it. Half of the bride’s guests came from outside of the country – so what, did we all evade border patrol to get there? And the bride and groom are sensible, honest, upright people. The groom is a lawyer. Knowing them, could she really imagine that they would have a friend – a friend in their bridal party! – who was here illegally? Some people wouldn’t bat an eyelash about such things, but not this couple; the idea of it would cause them, at the very least, discomfort. Oh please.

I would guess that this Midwesterner is a Republican, and that Donald Trump’s rhetoric about wall building, and the Republican anxiety over illegal immigration – never mind the fact that it has stabilised since 2009 – has made her hyper-sensitive to this issue. It’s well documented that Trump’s blustering, entitled, bullying manner has encouraged all the xenophobic, racist, misogynistic and other fear-based feelings in Americans. Until that evening, I’d never encountered it personally. In a different season, would this woman have asked me the same question? Would she have wondered the same question? What if I were a white male, or originally from Germany, Austria or France? Ha.

She sees my black skin, hears that I’m from a developing nation, looking for opportunities, and ding ding ding! I must be one of those clamouring, drain-on-the-system, illegals.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s the nasty, hostile thoughts and feelings at the root of this woman’s question that matter, not her identity. Way to be welcoming America! I thought you were supposed to be friendly? Way to gather your tired, your poor, your huddled masses!

There’s this image of Americans as being super warm, positive and encouraging, both of themselves and of strangers. The ultimate go-getters. Of course it can’t be true of everyone, but it’s still an image that the country is proud of and uses as global social currency. That image is swiftly eroding, as media reveal the hidden treatment of non-white Americans to the world even in this 21st century, and as Trump and his supporters spew hatred, condescension and vitriol. What will be left of this picture after November 8th?  Regardless of the outcome of the election, how will America view herself now that these rifts and inconsistencies have been made clear?

To return to my interaction with that woman – it’s a horrible thing to be on the other end of such a question. People love to talk about how immigrants effect their destination country’s economy, politics, society and whatever else. Rarely do you hear how these major moves affect the immigrants themselves. Many times I feel acutely how I don’t belong here, and see my foreignness getting in the way of establishing myself, and receiving care. This is from my place of privilege, as a native-English speaker! I can’t imagine what it’s like for people that migrate under fraught circumstances, as refugees or asylum seekers.

God stresses throughout the Bible the need to treat aliens with dignity, concern and respect. I never understood this growing up. Surely if they’ve moved somewhere more or less of their own will, then they’ll be happy and manage as they must? Lately I’ve come to understand that it’s not that simple, that in fact, it can be very hard, and isolating – even without hostile questions couched in innocent curiosity. If we could talk about this more that might engender a little empathy, and a little empathy would go a long way.We’re human too after all, looking for a better life for ourselves (and our families).

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:18-19 

On Feeling Sorry

Remember the piece I wrote about having eczema? How sometimes it’s debilitating? The very next day my sister sent me an article about a woman who is allergic to water. Even her own tears. As you might imagine, the condition dictates every aspect of her life, from once a week showers to being stuck inside when it rains or snows.  I asked my sister whether she’d read my post, because this woman’s illness is certainly far worse than mine (she hadn’t). Then, a few days later, I read a piece in the New Yorker about a woman who is allergic to light. There’s some controversy around her condition because dermatologists are sceptical of her claims and think that her disease is psychosomatic. Regardless of its root cause, the effects kept this woman in shadows for decades, sometimes unable to leave a homemade darkroom in her house, because of the searing pain that light would bring to her skin.

Learning of these women’s suffering underscored how mild my issues are in comparison. I could stop there and use that thought as a salve when I’m experiencing difficulty, but just because their skin isn’t as healthy as mine doesn’t mean that they’d want to trade their life for my own. I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to imagine someone whose circumstance is worse than yours in order to make yourself feel better, about our tendency to do this either as a coping mechanism or to offer others a form of sympathy. It’s a slippery slope from those thoughts to reinforcing harmful stereotypes and belief systems. I mean sure they can give some small comfort, but what about the larger societal ramifications?

Both these women are citizens of a powerful, respected country; I’m not. The interplay of expectation and reality is upended in our case – me, the black woman from a recently decolonised nation, feeling sorry for white women from the nation that caused my own country grief and social problems that we still don’t understand or know how to deal with. As far as our health is concerned, the picture of wealth is reversed; if you were to sketch our desires, the arrows of longing would go in the unexpected direction. And so, the same must be true in countless other scenarios between the ostensibly powerful and weak, rich and poor, secure and insecure. How many times do we hear that well-worn trope in the media, that we should think of the starving children in Africa before throwing away our food? I’m sure you know this, but they’re not all starving. And there are plenty starving in the US and other developed nations too. Yet it’s so easy to jump to images of people in developing or war-torn nations, whose poverty, disease and disenfranchisement are paraded on our television sets for our pity and entertainment. Propping ourselves up with their misery dehumanizes them and assumes that there’s nothing good or redeemable about their existence.

So what there are no paved roads in their town, or their food supply is dwindling or they’ve been displaced from their homes? Maybe they have an incredible relationship with their parents, or they’ve found meaningful work or there is joy in their every day. Their lives are not defined by the hardships or limitations they contain. Everything in this world is relative; money can’t buy you happiness and all that jazz. I’m not saying that we should ignore the problems caused by corruption, greed and imperialism, or abandon the research that seeks to improve public health, social programmes and our stewardship of the environment. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be grateful for the wonderful things in our lives, and reflect on those whenever we’re tempted to self pity. I am however saying that we – I – need to be careful to keep the nuances of humanity in view when we use the readymade images we see and hear in the news to bolster our mood. No-one  wants to be pitied, and we owe it to each other to treat everyone’s life, as troubling and unappealing as it may seem, with the respect and dignity we’d want for our own.

Buying Shoes is Never That Serious

Yesterday I was at a shoe store so that I could return a pair of shoes. I walked in and joined a line that was about 5 customers long. I was a bit surprised to see so many ahead of me, since I assumed I could be in and out in 5 minutes, and then off to meet a friend. The line posed a challenge to that plan, but what was there to do besides settle and wait?

Whine and complain, as I was soon to learn. A few women joined the line right after me, and all of them were upset about its length. One went up to the counter to ask why only two cashiers were serving customers, and the manager explained that she was doing the best she could with all of her trained staff on the three levels of the store.The woman returned to the line in a huff, and a moment or two afterward another of the three left the store. This prompted that first woman to yell toward the counter ‘Someone left the line! You just lost a sale!’ As though that might magic up some more cashiers.

The blonde, middle-aged woman continued to grumble, mumbling about how the manager was doing a poor job and wondering why she was waiting on this line when she could get the same shoes for a comparable price across the street at a similar store.  The third woman, who seemed to be her shopping companion, agreed with her, feeding into the discontent and tension that was growing. The blonde woman decided to yell again, ‘Do you see the line is growing?’ And told her friend she was considering going back to the counter to inform the manager, in case she couldn’t see for herself.

Initially, these women’s outrage fuelled frustration in me. What was mild disappointment quickly turned into agreement with them that it was unbelievable that only a few cashiers were stationed to serve a growing line of customers. After hearing the manager’s explanation, and slowly moving closer to the front of the line, I realised the system was working just fine, and those women were being more than a little impatient. I mean really, they complained from the minute they stepped onto the line, before they had waited for even a moment. The blonde woman in particular was the most obnoxious, talking nonstop; and I could feel her repeatedly looking my way, willing me to chime in. There was no way I would give her that satisfaction! In fact, I was actively wishing she would be quiet, and rest. In my calm waiting, I realised that little time was actually passing, and that although the cashiers seemed to have issues with each customer, this line was a wait like any retail other. If the blonde woman was so bothered, she could have left. No one was holding her there. But I noticed that she didn’t mention any pressing appointments to get to  – she just wanted to be finished for finishing’s sake.

Finally it was my turn to get to the counter. Walking away from from the nagging woman I gave a small sigh of relief. But, since she was right behind me, it was my good fortune to be standing next to her while she lit into her cashier about her experience:

Cashier: Hello, how are you today?
Blonde woman: I’m terrible actually. I had a horrible experience on line. Your manager is really bad. I think I’m going to make a phone call.

Mind you, the manager was maybe two feet away from the cashier, so she definitely heard all these comments. The cashier tried to apologize, but the woman kept at it, grumbling about the poor service. I watched the cashier’s body language change; she angled her body away from the woman, in my direction, and her eyes looked everywhere but in the woman’s face. The cashier ringing me up was upset too, and muttered something under her breath. ‘I’m sorry?’ I asked, before I realised that she wasn’t talking to me.

A few minutes after I went to the counter, my return was complete and I made my way out of the store. And you know what? The whole thing took 11 or 12 minutes. Standing in line and going through the somewhat stalled return process at the counter. I know because I texted my friend as soon as I joined the line, and she texted me when she got to our meeting place, at which time I was all done and ready to leave the store. My feeling that the wait was hardly long was right, but if you heard this woman carrying on you’d think we were standing there for 11 hours.

While I was waiting to be served and after I had left the store, I thought about how she and I handled the situation so differently. I stood calmly, without any emotional distress. I don’t know how I was able to be so easygoing about the situation – I’m not a very patient person and I dislike standing on lines of any sort. Meanwhile, the blonde woman seemed to have her day and her shopping experience ruined by having to endure the injustice of the line.

There is so much to unpack in that. In the grand scheme of all that is going on in the world, of everything that has happened in the last two weeks – especially Hurricane Matthew wreaking havoc across Cuba, Haiti and The Bahamas, and the 100+ children killed in the Syrian civil war – what is it to stand in a well-lit, high ceilinged, air conditioned building to purchase a pair of shoes to add to your collection?

When black people of all ages across the US are exponentially more likely to be shot dead by the police going about their everyday lives than their white counterparts, and then have their killer minimally, if at all, punished, how is it an injustice to have two or three (black) women at a counter to serve you, rather than seven? How can you really allow that to make you spittingly mad? There is something incredibly wrong with that picture.

I wonder, did blonde woman tell family and friends about how the shoe store ruined her day?

Ugh, the more I think about it, the more it makes me sick to my stomach. The woman doesn’t know that it is her incredible privilege that makes her feel so entitled to a particular kind of service, and to speak so rudely to people trying their best to do their jobs in a high pressure situation. If you want to look at it from a racial angle, from a developed versus underdeveloped nation angle, from an economic angle – she has a lot going for her here.

I’m not all mad though. In fact, after I get over my own huff of disgust, I remember how peaceful I felt on the line, and how really I’m just sorry for blonde woman that she couldn’t wait quietly like the rest of us. God has been teaching me a lot about patience in the last year and a half. I’ve been waiting for a few things, all of which have yet to be fulfilled and/or revealed to me. My earnestness for answers has not diminished, but I have learned to be a little less anxious. In those times when fear and worry threaten to overwhelm me, I am a bit better at walking myself away from the edge. I guess those skills have spilled over into other areas of my life. Moreover, because I’ve come to cherish so greatly the truths about God caring for us, knowing our lives intimately, and being altogether good and wise, I have a better perspective on the everyday stresses of life. I feel like I’ve noticed a change for the better in that direction anyway, and it’s a trend I want to continue. Blonde woman doesn’t seem to have that. I’m thankful for a saviour-friend who keeps my mind and heart still through the unpleasant, disruptive moments life always throws our way.