Thursday, July 28, 2011

love and marriage in New York

A little while ago, I posted an incredibly powerful speech from In it, straight senator Dianne J. Savina from New York State was arguing for gay marriage. The bill allowing gay marriage was not passed, and as a result, every time someone told me America is the land of the free where you can become who you want to be, I gave a bitter little laugh.

And then I happened to glance at the Guardian online this weekend (I'm sure you can guess what my favourite online paper of the moment is) and I see that they have now passed the bill allowing gay marriage. To quote Jen Thorpe (feminist commentator and, if I'm not mistaken, ex-Rhodes student), "HOORAY!!!!"

Many couples lined up in matching suits or dresses to get married and there is a slideshow of eight photographs that made me get all warm and fuzzy inside. I was going to say that photograph number three is my favourite. It is a picture of Phyllis Siegel and Connie Kopelov, 76 and 84 years old respectively. They have just been pronounced wife and wife, and Phyllis is kissing an overwhelmed Connie's cheek adoringly whilst the friends and family smilingly applaud in the background. They have been together for twenty-three years.

But then I saw the next one, Myron Levine and Philip Zinderman (who is holding a little bouquet of flowers) striding out of the relatively ancient looking "New York State Building" together, holding their joined hands aloft and laughing. There is a friend on either side of the door, a man and a woman, preparing to shower them with rose petals. They may have been together for fifty-three years, but the expressions on their faces are as excited as any young newly-weds.

Douglas Robinson and Michael Elsasser have each other in a close-knit embrace, each head buried in the other's shoulder so that you cannot see their faces. When you look at their evident happiness, you don't need to. One women is leaping down the steps with her partner (perhaps she is dancing?) and her is flying out around her in excitement. There are two men in Business-type suits sitting in adjoining chairs. They are holding hands and the one is kissing the other's cheek, so coyly and lovingly that it makes me wonder whether a "blushing bride" is a term that is necessarily exclusively female.

These New York marriages, so long fought-for, arch over these couples like blessings, softening every line on their faces with love.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

for those who no longer have words

One of the stories that has haunted me (along with the rest of the world) is that of Anders Behring Breivik. The first photograph I saw of him showed me a good-looking man, some might even have said beautiful. He has well-defined bone structure, good skin and golden blonde hair with deep blue eyes. He was dressed as a policeman when he stood on a rock and beckoned the young adults, who were swimming around the island to come towards him. Even in South Africa, I believe, where many of us fear the police, he would not have seemed a threat. After all, for many people (Annelie Botes and Donald Trump among others), a brown skin is the first signal of danger.

There have been many articles about him: his extremism, his religion, his Islamaphobia and the possibility that he is clinically insane. He is living proof of the damage violent extremists do to everyone, even their "own kind" (whatever that is), the ones they profess to be protecting.

But he still has words and voices at his disposal. The dead do not. Their stories are the ones that need to be told.

When the people at the camp swam towards the handsome, beckoning "policeman", he opened fire on them, killing sixty-eight people. His bomb killed a further eight people (at last count). The number is equivalent to over two South African government school classes, or three private school ones. If you go to the Guardian Online website, you can see the pictures and read some information about the people who are dead or missing presumed dead to have been identified thus far.

There is one man (barely a man, he is only twenty-three) named Gunnar Linaker. He has a roundish face and flushed skin that makes me think he was once part of a debating team. He positioned himself in front of the younger people (most of the dead are teenagers) to shield them. He survived the attack but died in hospital.

Hanne Annette Balch Fjalestad was one of the older people who died in the attack. She had come out to the camp from Denmark with her twenty-year old daughter. She also died protecting the younger ones, including her daughter, who survived. Hanne leaves beyond four children.

Ismail Haj Ahmed had appeared on "Norway's Got Talent". His picture is a publicity shot and he has a fresh Disney smile of an untarnished High School Musical star. His brother found his body on the rocks.

The photographs and the anonymous silhouettes where faces should be looks eerily like facebook: a group of smiling young people and a few of their parents. No doubt if the camp had a facebook group the album photographs would look something like it. Except that this is a group of people were put together because none of their smiling faces are alive anymore.

In South Africa - I am not sure why - when something bad happens to someone, even if we did nothing to cause it, we say sorry, perhaps because some hurts move beyond complex statements of compassion.

So I'm sorry.

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry.

I'm so sorry.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

blogger's block (and my soution)

The more I blog, the less I feel able to. In part, this may be a writer's problem. The words overwhelm one. How can one find the right words when there are no right ones? My experiences and feelings can never be teased out in language, the subtleties cannot be expressed. They can be hinted at, or expressed in a particular way but actually come to mean something completely different. Sometimes the life I want to describe seethes with vibrancy and infinite riches before my eyes and I feel clumsy and rough, having to shatter what I see in order to smear the oozing remains onto the page. And yet language does communicate. Having caught up on friends' blogs, I am enlightened and lifted and made to see differently. I am sure that sometimes my writings (if I work on them conscientiously enough) do the same.

It may also be because I flinch from the continuous sound (metaphorically speaking) of my own voice. Too often, debate or public speaking can become nothing more than a tirade of repetitive shock-slogans, and those who speak the loudest are the best heard. I maintain that one of the best ways to deal with Julius Malema is not to give him so much free publicity (although the recent publicity about his trust fund makes me thrilled). South Africa has so any wise people who are doing good work, why cannot we have their revelations on the front pages or discussed and picked over in the media? Perhaps, in part, because wisdom cannot always be arrived at in a headline or a twitter feed. I am uninitiated to the world of twitter, but it does make me shudder like the ancient, pedantic English teacher I'm sure I am on the inside. Even the name makes all my toes curl. "Twit" (as in Roald Dahl's "The Twits"), or to "twit" someone has never been a good thing. Perhaps the joke is on us: millions of people signing up for the right to be called a "twit-ter".

As I just illustrated (most effectively to myself), I can easily be betrayed into a tirade. But what is the difference between an educated, interesting opinion and a tirade? At what point do my opinions stop trying to effect good in the world and turn into statements designed to wound and simultaneously make myself look self-righteous and superior? I am sure many people can come up with pithy statements on twitter, just as many people write, um, not-so-pithy things.

Perhaps I do sometimes betray myself into wounding rather than challenging constructively, but what I do love doing (without regrets, although I always wish I could describe them better) in these blogs is telling people's stories. There are such interesting people walking by me every day that when life slows down a little (or when I slow down enough to stop and really see) I have really nourishing encounters.

I've just been on holiday to three different provinces (KwaZulu Natal, the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga) and what really struck me was the wonderful men I met. Feminists are not completely round the twist when they say that we still live in an unequal society. Female lecturers at Wits (for example) are more often that not paid less than their male counterparts. I also meet women (more often than I would like to) who still do all the housework and cooking despite the fact that both partners have full time jobs. Then there are also men who are brought up with very specific ideas about what masculinity is, and when they are unable to fulfil these expectations, are left feeling emasculated and angry. Sometimes this can make women (myself included) and men bitter about the state of gender relations.

Yet on this holiday, I found so much evidence of men who were negotiating this world with such verve and sensitivity that I have returned feeling inspired. There are two of the men I went to school with, Richard and Malcolm. I saw them on the last leg of my trip as Malcolm was getting married (what a beautiful wedding and a meaningful and thought-provoking marriage service). Richard cooked a few delicious meals for all of us, and always treated his girlfriend, Tarryn with the utmost respect. He is endlessly curious and energetic, always wanting to learn more about all of us and what we are interested in, never arrogantly dreaming that he knows everything or intimating, however subtly or unconsciously, that he would be smarter because he is a man(despite being a really talented computer scientist). He reminded me of how important it is to be curious about everything, and how much more you can learn and grow because of it.

Malcolm, who was getting married to his wonderful wife, Jess, made clear throughout the ceremony and reception that he was so fortunate to be getting married to such a special person. The absolute love and respect he has for his wife, and the fact that he was unashamed to show the enormity of his emotion was an incredibly beautiful thing to see.

Then there is Markus, a bird and mammal guide extraordinaire. He made me think almost all the time: openly challenging me to be sharper, more aware and even more moral. "Moral" is a bit of a self-righteous word, but hang in there. It's because he listened closely to whatever I said, and pulled it apart. I had fallen into the habit of speaking unthinkingly, and of saying (among other things), "I promise" when I wanted to emphasise a point, implying (as he rightly said) that what I usually said was untrustworthy or not worth listening to. As a language person, thinking about how I use language before I say anything is immensely important. Language is powerful. Travelling with a wildlife guide also made me more aware of how much I miss all around me every day. I walked to work through Wits campus (the centre of South Africa's biggest city) the other day actually looking for birds and I found the kind of strikingly beautiful birdlife I only dreamed was possible in game parks. I have been walking around half-blind.

This blog is for those men who do make a better way forward in this "monstrous and wonderful, banal and bizarre, ordered and chaotic"* world. It's also for my boyfriend, the intensely private man who I haven't described in detail here, but who is living proof for me every day that men and women do not always have to tear at each other, but can nourish and better each other in every infinitesimal way.