Against Omphaloskepsis

The other day a food blog I follow led me to a YouTube vlogger. I got swept up watching her videos and learning about her life, then found myself on her website and her instagram, trying to make sense of her product and her brand. Her instagram was probably the most fun. I admired each perfect image, and wondered at the way her presentation of herself makes her life seem absolutely perfect, blissful. Both her pictures and videos are full of light and there are vivid colours from stunning flowers and landscapes. The vlogger herself is tall and svelte, with long, dark wavy hair. Even now that’s she’s eight or nine months pregnant, her physique has stayed the same with the exception of her round belly, and she still wears high heels, mini-skirts and dresses, and body-conforming clothes. She’s positioned herself as a fashion and lifestyle guru it seems. With all this curated content, I wondered at what goes on behind the scenes of her life. Surely there is sorrow, surely she has arguments with her husband, though in every vlog scene I saw him in they were dreamily sharing elegantly plated, perfectly portioned, healthy (albeit bland looking) meals, which never failed to start with a kiss.

It would be so easy  to slide down a slope of dissatisfaction and envy from viewing all this enchanting content. I thanked God that, for whatever reason, I felt more curious about her life than envious of it. Maybe it was the absolute rightness of everything and the knowledge that this couldn’t be true that saved me. That and the fact that she doesn’t know Jesus, who I wouldn’t trade for her world. Still, I realised that it would be so easy to put her life on a pedestal, to worship the amazing combination of peacefulness, accomplishment, beauty and freedom from want that appears therein. Not long after having that thought I read a comment from another instagram viewer – she confessed that her vision board, the images she meditates on each morning and wishes will come true, are of this vlogger’s life with her husband. I was amazed. This person has fallen into the very trap I had imagined, and I feel sorry for her. How can we ever desire another person’s life so much? How can we, knowing that every human is fallible and no one’s life is perfect, yearn so deeply to be someone else? Even if her vision board comes true, it’s built on an illusion and there will be no lasting contentment for her there.

I continued to think about the vlogger’s life, and how far she’s separated from the chaos of war and the stress of poverty. I’m separated from those things too, so I wasn’t feeling self-righteous about that; I was wondering how the time we (I) spend admiring the lives of the rich distracts us from the harsh realities of the poor and marginalised that need our attention and compassion. It’s not that I think it’s bad for us to see how wealthy people are living, just that too much time in that world not only breeds dissatisfaction with ourselves, it makes us more selfish, or at the very least nurtures a tunnel vision so that we cannot see the needs of others. It’s crazy that there are so many wealthy and mega-wealthy people, and at the same time there are many more who walk miles for water, risk their physical and mental health in oppressive factories for unthinkable “wages”, and cannot walk the streets of their home for fear of warfare and political retribution. We cannot ignore them. We cannot drool over lives that look supremely comfortable and happy and forget how comfortable (if not necessarily happy) our lives are.

Then what do you know,  later that day, I listened to last week’s episode of This American Life. It’s a heartache-inducing piece on refugees in Greece. They are stuck in limbo, their children are traumatised and have missed endless days of school, their days stretch out long and uncertain before them as the already-crippled Greek state struggles to shelter them and provide them with services. Their reality, and the realities of refugees all over the world, is exactly the kind of thing we, or I, am in danger of forgetting about by feeding my desire for personal success and accomplishment by falling down these instagram and other social media and celeb-news rabbit holes.

It’s fun to see how the other half lives, and sometimes it inspires me to work hard and persevere, but it can be dangerous too. It’s difficult enough to be committed to serving other people and caring for their needs while battling my own selfishness. I don’t need any outside help to make me more callous, self-centred and dissatisfied. What’s that saying, comparison is the thief of joy? Well, it’s true. And if I’m not content with my own life, how can I look around me to give freely to and empathise with others who need my help? So a warning to myself, then, to watch out for following too closely the lives of others that seem wonderful and complete compared to mine. A reminder that focusing on all I have to be thankful for is what will keep me contented, and equip me to think more of others and less of myself.

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Lament

There have been incredibly disturbing, frustrating and upsetting events in the news recently… but I guess when isn’t there disturbing news? We live in an awful, ugly, fallen world.

In the US, the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile made me question, for the millionth time, my safety and especially the safety of every dark skinned male that I know and care for that lives here. With that question follows another – why stay? Or, why try to stay? After watching the video of Philando Castile’s slaughter I broke down into heaving, sobbing tears, gasping for breath, overflowing with sorrow. I couldn’t believe the depth of my reaction. This man and his family were strangers to me. I witnessed the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement  while I was in graduate school. Each time I was horrified, unsettled, grasping for ways to understand this country that I live in. I fought to keep up with the rhythm of my work, but I never reacted the way that I did with Castile. Perhaps his death was just the last that I could take.

In the days that followed I struggled to mark the gravity of his and Sterling’s death on my own. I prayed alone and called a friend to pray with her. I am stunned at the injustice of their and every other innocent black man, woman and child’s death. I am anguished by the way their lives are so easily and thoughtlessly taken. How can this go on? Is anything really changing? And if it is, how in heaven’s name did people live day to day decades ago? Here and elsewhere. How did my grandparents survive? And their parents? This fear and racism disgust and slay me.

Then in France, on a happy, sunny, Bastille Day, people were chased down by a van and rolled over, trampled, mowed down. More shocking, senseless violence.

What can I say really that hasn’t already been said? What musings on the need for love, forgiveness and communication? I was reminded after Sterling and Castile’s deaths that it is good, and right, to spend time mourning the terrible things that happen. We don’t have to jump to solutions and attempts at reconciliation right away.

It has been 32 days since Alton Sterling was killed, 31 days since Philando Castile was killed, and 23 days since 84 people were killed on Bastille Day. These words of David in Psalm 6 (beginning at verse 2) are also my own:

“Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of my foes.”

The opening of the psalm is a reminder that our sin is at the root of these horrible events, and also that God is angered by injustice:

“Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.”

But it ends with hope in the knowledge that God hears our prayers and will bring about justice on our behalf:

“Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.”

Amen.

What’s Needful is Lawful

I miss my grandmother so much. I told her so on the phone yesterday. She told me that she misses me too, but she also said “What’s needful is lawful.” I asked her what she was getting at with that maxim, and she said that in the pursuit of better things in life, we have to make sacrifices that take us out of our comfort zone; difficult things we might not want to do become absolutely necessary. Or they should anyway, because otherwise we’ll never know what might have been.

I keep (foolishly) thinking that I’ve heard all of my grandmother’s sayings, only to learn otherwise. She slipped this one into our conversation so inconspicuously; it was an aside. “I miss you too,” then softer “but what’s needful is lawful.” I almost missed it, and in fact it took a minute to register. When I had us double back over the comment, she brought up her own Grandma Clara, who she learned the saying from. She painted a picture for me of Grandma Clara sitting in her rocking chair, swaying back and forth as she shirked her chores in favour of reading. “When she found out the day had gone, and she hadn’t finished cooking, she had to rush and get up and cook so when her husband come out the field, hungry and rearing, she’d have somethin’ for him to eat. She was one of the best women the Lord has ever made. Grandma Clara we used to call her.”

The most I’d ever heard about my great great grandmother Clara before this was how she took in my great grandmother to raise as her own daughter, away from the mean and wicked clutches of her stepmother. Sounds like Cinderella I know but it’s true! Grammy has told me the story countless times over my lifetime – she repeated it again yesterday – and it always goes the same way. I was glad this time to learn more about the fairy mother Clara. She sounds like a sweet, smart woman, and one after my own heart. Reading all day in her rocking chair? Haha! I would have loved to meet her. I’m going to ask Grammy to tell me more about her too.

I’d never considered my grandmother as a little girl, with a grandmother of her own to learn from and be loved by. I never even thought of Grandma Clara as my own relative, really, or how intimately we are connected through her role in my grandmother’s life. It was fun to think about yesterday, and to wonder how much their relationship resembled the one that Grammy and I have. Our conversation made me recognise too the chain of wisdom passed from one grandmother to the next. Will I have a granddaughter to talk to about my own grandmother? The way you always hear her humming before you see her, and her famously generous spirit? Perhaps, but whether or not that happens I am endlessly thankful for my Grammy, and now for Grandma Clara too, who taught her, gave her wisdom and loved her in preparation (among other things) for her to do the same for me. Grandma Clara loved me even without knowing it.

Overheard in Transit

June 17th
“I’m really proud of you mami. (About a minute later) I’m gonna get the patch ok? You graduated so I’m gonna learn to stop smoking.”

This was a mother to her young daughter. She wasn’t old enough to have graduated from high school, so in my mind I assumed she must have finished 6th grade. But I realise now that US schools operate differently, and it’s more likely that the ceremony was to mark the end of 8th or 9th grade. Whatever the grade level, we were on a jam packed 4 train, heading uptown. The mother was oblivious to my and others’ bemused reaction to her statement. She was just so proud! It was sweet, despite the oddness of her logic that graduating was a token for which she could exchange her cigarette habit. Maybe she thought that they both require a lot of effort and are recognised as accomplishments… but her daughter is so young! How does this transition even count as a milestone? I don’t think graduations are even necessary until you finish high school. Anyway, that’s just me, and part of the reason I found her comments so unusual.

 

June 9th
“I sprayed him with bleach and then I spanked him with the mop.”

Whaaaat?! I thought as a woman around my age walked onto the car saying this into her phone. For whatever reason, I assumed she meant a toddler, and even after she finished her sentence and I knew it had to be an animal, I couldn’t shake that idea. Needless to say, it created a funny picture in my mind of her chastising this morphing human/animal child in her home for whatever offence they had committed.

 

June 2nd
“My ear came off this morning!”

I have no clue. I was bewildered then as I am now, trying to make sense of this exclamation. All I know is that a woman said this to what seemed like a male stranger sitting next to her. I was too far away from them to glean anymore information about the woman or the context or the conversation. That was part of the fun of overhearing this though, because she said it so loudly and it was so random.

Public Bullying

Last week on the subway I witnessed a deeply disturbing scene.

It was about 9pm, I was on my way home from a class and surprised by the number of people in the train car. I had to stand in the aisle because all of the seats were taken. Well, almost all. There was about a half a seat empty in between two people, owing to the size of one of them. My spot was just in front of this larger person. A stop or maybe two after I got on, a woman entered and pushed her way into this small space. As she approached the bench she huffed and said something like, “Excuse me but I want to sit here”. Her tone was harsh and aggressive, and her words were directed at the larger person, a woman. She knew that by sitting down she would make this woman (and likely the other person and possibly even herself) uncomfortable. Her voice acknowledged that reality and asserted her right to take the seat anyway. The way she went about claiming the spot was obnoxious and rude, but the moment would have been forgettable if she didn’t also say, “This is… oversize”. 

My jaw dropped. I might have reddened. Through the whole dramatic scene, the large woman sat in silence; it took all of my self-control not to turn my head and see if there were any changes in her facial expression or posture. Thoughts and emotions flooded through me and I spent the rest of my ride wrestling with all of them. I took notes on my phone.

The rude woman was skinny, petite, white and looked to be in her early to mid 60s. She was wearing black tights with white stars on them, a black bomber jacket and pleather fingerless gloves. Her hair was a mix of grey and dull brown, wild and wispy about her face, which was shiny with sweat. Perhaps she had come from a vigorous work out, but she was wearing (ugly, incongruous) platform shoes which throws that idea into question.

The assaulted woman was black, in her late 20s or early 30s, wearing jeans and a white blouse, with lovely clear skin. Her natural hair was styled with two corn rows framing her face, the rest pulled back into a bun or pony tail. She wasn’t wearing headphones, so she definitely heard the comments made by the rude woman, and through the entire ordeal, as far as I could tell, her face and body continued to look as they did when I boarded the car – calm, and at rest.

I understood the rude woman wanting to sit down. When she first started speaking, my offence at her attitude was tempered by this understanding, and also the signs of her physical stress. After she made the comment about the woman being “oversize”, I was shocked. Scandalised might be a better word. I was angry too, on behalf of the other woman, and felt that she would be well within her rights to respond to the skinny woman’s rudeness. The anger quickly gave way to sympathy. I wanted to reach out to the assaulted woman somehow and let her know that I knew she was wronged, that she didn’t deserve to be treated that way. I was too embarrassed to meet her eyes though. I was afraid  that acknowledging my status as a witness might make any negative feelings she had worse. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Overcome with all these emotions, I also felt a little like crying. How cruel! How stupid! How senseless! And there I was just standing. Who was I, anyway, to be reacting so intensely to something that didn’t even happen to me? Would the assaulted woman resent me if she knew what I was thinking and feeling? I wonder now  as I’m writing this why I didn’t say anything. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference. It might have made an uncomfortable situation much worse. But maybe I should have.

Regardless of the woman’s desire to sit down, there was no need for her to shove her way into the space, and to publicly belittle the larger woman as she did so. As I said, the train car was full. She made no attempts to modulate her voice so that the exchange, such as it was, was private. Her huffing and puffing, the way she commented that the other woman was oversize, conveyed total disgust and censure. Moreover, she didn’t even say “you” are oversize. She said “this”, as though the woman were a non-human object. She basically broadcast to everyone else in the car not only that she thought the woman was lazy and gluttonous, but that her very being was transgressive, because she was too big for one seat.

Now, in spite of that fact, there was no love or grace or ‘common politeness’, as my mother or grandmother might say, in the skinny woman’s approach to the bench. Surely she could have extended some humanity to the other woman, and either refrained from sitting down – she didn’t ride the train for very long, if she had this actually would have helped explain her entitled behaviour – or spoken in a gentler manner. She was small enough to make the seating arrangements feasible, if a little tight, so there was no need for her to fling her body and her opinions about that way.

This brings me to another point, race. Can you imagine the same scene with the races of the women reversed? Only with extreme difficulty, and only with the skinny black woman appearing to reinforce the angry, ill-bred, chip-on-her-shoulder black woman stereotype. The white woman was confident and secure in her skin enough to humiliate a black woman without hesitation. This is an example of the way her skin gives her privilege to speak and behave as she’d like to, without fear of her words and actions being attributed to something beyond her own personality or having consequences beyond herself.

Another privilege at play of course is her body size. Her small figure did more than allow her to slide into the half seat, it gave her the upper hand in the exchange because she embodies the more highly valued physique in our society. With this physique comes respect and prestige from the larger community.*

The city itself played a role in making the exchange possible. The anonymity it affords gave another kind of power to the woman: it freed her to act as she pleased since she was interacting with and observed by strangers who she was practically guaranteed never to see again. New York makes it easier for those of us living here to behave callously toward one another – our liberating anonymity is also a shield.

Something else I turned over in my head was how one woman could be so mean and insensitive to another. With all of the social and media pressure to conform to particular standards of beauty, with all of the glass ceilings, locked doors and biased or restrictive legal matters that obstruct our every day lives, it’s unconscionable to me that the skinny woman could have no qualms about sucking joy or contentment out of the large woman’s life. Whether we agree with one another’s choices or not, the very least we can do is afford each other the respect we do not get from the wider world.

The scene was ugly, and all of the power and privilege dynamics at play reveal the dark side of human nature. I wasn’t thinking about those so much when I left the train though, I just felt sad. I couldn’t believe the older woman’s meanness and indignation; it filled the air and made the whole car feel hostile. I wondered how the rest of the assaulted woman’s night went, whether she’s experienced that kind of aggression before and how she manages it. The whole thing brought me very low. Reflecting on it now still brings me low. I want there to be a record that it happened, that I was a witness, that we need to do better.

 

*Economic class surely had a role to play in this exchange as well, but without knowing the women personally it’s difficult to speculate how exactly.

I Couldn’t Make This Up If I Tried

The man sitting next to me on the subway this afternoon was watching porn on his phone.

Did you catch that? He was watching porn. On his phone. Right next to me in the train car.

I met him already seated on that particular bench. The only other spots available were cut in half by male passengers’ man-spread, so I took the one between him and a woman. He glanced in the direction of my arm several times after I sat down, and I thought that perhaps it was because he felt I’d brushed his arm with my own. I hadn’t actually brushed any part of him at all and was a bit irritated that he kept looking at me. After several of these glances I looked down at our arms and saw his phone in his lap. As my brain pieced together the images on the screen, I was horrified, completely disgusted, and in shock. I wondered whether this was perhaps a viral video of old (two girls one cup?) that he stumbled upon, not knowing its graphic content. But no, I saw enough in those brief seconds to learn that it could not have been that infamous film; it was some other generic one he had elected to watch as though he were in his home.

Describing New York as diverse, or a melting pot, is trite, and hardly does the demographics and atmosphere of the city justice. There are all kinds of people here, and with most of us taking public transportation we’re bound to run into concepts and behaviours that are, at the very least, foreign to us. This was how I initially explained the actions of this man, who could have been my father – or young grandfather! – to myself. I chalked it up to his lifestyle and values being different than my own. As such, I could move to another seat on the train, and “to each his own, but that is seriously inappropriate” was as far as I could go in terms of judgement.

However, and much to my surprise, I soon started to feel sorry for this stranger. What kind of life must he have, how bad must his addiction to pornography be, that he could not take a subway ride without accessing some erotic [1] content on his phone? I cannot imagine being so entrapped. Or, could it really be that he does what he pleases without regard to social norms? That explanation doesn’t seem quite right though, because he stopped watching soon after I noticed what he was doing. He must have realised that I finally understood the reason for all his nervous glances in my direction. Either way, his decision to watch on the train in the first place is bewildering – is there anything you can’t see in NY? – and incredibly sad or incredibly brazen.

After the woman sitting on the other end of our bench disembarked, another man came and sat beside me. Soon, I found his sleeping head falling onto my shoulder, then his whole body leaning into my own, his weight pushing me into the man on my right. (Prompting still more glances.) Public transportation has an uncanny ability to make our private moments public. Whether people choose to carry out otherwise intimate activities in full view of strangers, like the man on my right, or cannot help themselves as they fall into them, like the man on my left, we give and receive glimpses into one another’s lives that many of the people we interact with regularly never see.

But really though. Porn??

 

[1] Does porn even count as erotic? For me that word has genuine sensual and emotional connotations which I don’t associate with the creation of pornography at all.

 

On Hold

At this very moment, I’m listening to a thin, tinny version of Minuet in G. It’s just the first 16 bars, playing over and over on a mind-numbing loop. My brain keeps jumping to the next section, recalling fuller, more interesting performances of the piece. Couldn’t they at least have found a real piano version to use, rather than these awful computer-generated tones? Alternatively, they could play the whole piece, or include other works entirely. Waiting is bad enough, why is it that so often the soundtrack turns a tedious experience into one that’s unbearable?