Thursday, November 24, 2011

luck and gratitude

walking out of our temporary apartment building yesterday to pick up our gluten-free jalapeno cornbread, i spotted a shiny penny on the carpet.

i picked it up. "hurray!" i smiled at rara, "i am SO lucky!"

she said, "it was face down, that's not lucky. you shouldn't have picked it up."

me: "i don't believe that. i pick up ALL pennies, they are all lucky!"

she giggled, "maybe that's why you have such bad luck."

me: "i don't have bad luck! i am one of the luckiest people!"

she said, "you have the worst luck of anyone - you got cancer, you lost your apartment, you got hit by a taxi, your new apartment got flooded, your car was eaten by rats - mama, you are NOT lucky!"

i started laughing myself: "i got cancer and i got well, we have another apartment in the same neighborhood, i survived the taxi accident with just a few scars, we're staying in temporary apartment on the 47th floor with the most beautiful views ever, the insurance fixed my car. my exhusband sued me and realized he had to drop the case, i do work i love. i have great friends and i have three smart and pretty daughters -"

rara interrupted, laughing, too: "ok, at least, you have ONE smart pretty daughter."

it made me think about tennessee williams' quote: "luck is believing you are lucky." there's a theory that luck is a psychological state rather than a psychic one. lucky people see the positive side to every situation.

and lucky people are grateful ones. as ariana huffington says, we should also "occupy gratitude."

there is so much i am grateful for. apart from all the things i already told rara, it's the pleasure of sitting in a stream of sunlight in the morning as i drink my tea. it's the ability to fill my lungs with air and exhale a satisfying breath. i am so grateful for breathing.

and there's the elasticity in my muscles when i swim laps - oh how delicious to be able to swim after my months of chemo - to be weightless and cocooned in the water and free of ivs and wires. and being able to walk around on my own, to think clearly, to remember. i love being able to sleep. sinking into a pillow at night and drifting off or the luxury of occasionally being able to sleep late into the morning.

and the surprising, painful joy of waking early enough to see the sunrise. that magical moment when anything is possible.

i am grateful that my children always have fresh, abundant food and clean beds to sleep in and more clothes than they know what to do with. they have lots of shoes and our apartment is warm and watertight. i am grateful that they know they are loved by their parents (even if their parents don't love each other). i am grateful that when it's raining or snowing, i can pick them up in a car and we can all drive warm and dry in the car, unlike so many people who must walk or sleep or live outside.

i am grateful that i am not frightened anyone will hurt me or that bombs will explode outside my home or the school. that my daughters all made it up to adolescence with all their limbs intact and without being hurt or molested or abused.

i am grateful for the small unexpected moments of luck that seem to show up on my doorstep - a shiny penny! the elevator right there when i walk out! the subway arriving just as i get to the platform! problems that find solutions (with a lot of persistence)! a new project that fills me with the thrill of an intellectual challenge as i rush to solve it.

finding white roses with pink edges in the supermarket and being able to afford to bring them home. having the vision to see them, oh they are so beautiful and alive! and the world is filled with so many beautiful things to drink in with your eyes.

how lucky, how lucky to be able to see.

five years ago, in november, i drove down the pacific coast highway from san francisco to santa cruz, california to visit my college friends. i was so struck by the incredible, brutal beauty of the cliffs and the sea that i had to keep stopping the car to gaze at it. the 2-hour drive took me 4. i kept thinking that those views were the reason i had eyes. that in some sense, i existed in order to witness that beauty.

two years ago, i spent thanksgiving in the emergency room at memorial sloan kettering and when i got home i was too sick to eat anything. but i am still grateful for my cousin noor who sat with me for hours and my friend and healer, penney leyshon, who appeared like an angel in my curtained cubicle and made the bleeding stop with her energy. my brother who baked a pumpkin pie with no dairy or sugar or wheat.

i am grateful for my skin, my hair, my body. that i regained all the nerve sensation in my fingers and i touch and feel so many lovely things.

i breathed a sigh of gratitude upon hearing that my friend mona eltahawy, the courageous egyptian-american journalist, was set free after being beaten and detained by the egyptian police.

the dog licking my toes under the table...

thank YOU to the Divine, God, Allah, Jesus, Brahma, Intelligence, the Universe, for all the pleasures of the flesh as well as the soul.
Each one of my particles called out with its own voice,
"All praise be to God and thanksgiving!"

— Jalaluddin Rumi
how lucky we are.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

might is right

a friend recently sent me an email about her young cousin, yaman al qadri, a 19 year-old college student who was viciously beaten and taken into custody by syrian forces. another friend posted on her facebook page about the 14 year-old boy hamza al-khatib who'd been tortured and beaten to death. there is the recent story of sasha and RISD, the children used by jerry sandusky at penn state (and no one complained because they didn't want to jeopardize the football team, or the main money-generating activity at the university). friends at universities and colleges all over the country have told me about the way students are being criminalized for the smallest infractions especially if those students have not paid their tuition upfront. no one wants an insurance liability, even if ethics suggest otherwise.

in moments of uncertainty, do we always prey on the small? we use them to appease our fear. maybe that's how we feel we regain a bit of power and control in our world. are the smallest on the food chain likely to become casualties of the current global uncertainty?

correct me if my vision of a pattern doesn't fit. (my father used to tell me a joke that illustrated the human habit of imagining that everyone else is in the same situation as you are. the story began with two college boys and one lent the other his motorcycle. the second boy ended by crashing his friend's bike in a head-on collision with a car during the night.  when the owner of the motorcycle came to visit his friend in hospital, he asked how it happened. the second boy said, "the bridge was so narrow that when i saw the headlights of 2 motorcycles coming towards me, instead of passing, i decided to drive between them.")

on the other hand, there is the recent death of hana williams and the injuries of other children relating to the parenting book, "to train up a child" by michael pearl. the book that has taken the right-wing parenting world by storm and has thousands of adherents. it seems that the most defenseless amongst us are the first to suffer the effects of the fear that the world is slipping away. it's clear that the rigidity of the tea partiers and the harsh, unwavering judgement of people like ron paul will certainly take out the weakest first.

while people are rising up against "wall street" and the 1% - despite michael bloomberg and the administration's ongoing attempts to squash them - perhaps we should also be rising up FOR children.

we should be taking a stand for a kinder, gentler world that protects our most vulnerable and most quiet.

would you call it #occupyhumanity ?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

the end of childhood

just shy of 3 weeks' into her freshman year at the rhode island school of design (RISD), sasha finds herself bleary-eyed and lost outside the district courthouse in providence. she's running on 2 days' with very little sleep because she got back from her first weekend back home in new york city the night before. she's still wearing the sweatshirt she wore back on the train, "The United Nations International School, NYC." it's the idealistic school she attended from kindergarten to 12th-grade. the lunch ladies had known her since before she was too small to carry her own money.

she's a bright but shy girl. when she was a toddler, city testing showed high levels of lead in her blood. we think that's probably why she developed ADD in adolescence. it makes her dreamy and easily carried away in her thoughts, so it takes some mustering up of will to ask a stranger which way to get back to the college. she looks up the road to a church steeple that looks vaguely familar.

last night, she had a sleepless night in a freezing cold jail cell, because RISD public safety had her arrested for coming in to tell them she mistakenly ignited a piece of paper on a bulletin board as she was leaving the dormitory (even though she didn't leave the spot before she was certain the entire thing had been extinguished). it was out in less than a minute.

when every wisp of smoke was gone, she walked out of the building and heard the fire alarms and the engines coming. she thought she'd better reassure everyone that it was not a serious fire, nothing was damaged and no one was in danger. she did what she had been taught to do all through her education at the United Nations School. be kind. be conscious. be caring. when she made a mistake, she admitted it, apologized and tried to rectify the situation as best she could.

even that night, she was tired. the first semester at RISD is known for being grueling. she'd had a studio class from 8am to 7pm and then she worked on her homework in her room for 3 hours before she and her friends had decided to go out for a cigarette break at about 11pm. she was spacey and she was sorry.

providence is small but the RISD freshman schedule is so dense so she's not been off college hill much except to the library. she'd never been in this part of town before. there's no one there to pick her up, her I.D. and cell phone had been confiscated, and they didn't let her get her wallet so she guesses she'll just have to walk back. her wrists are still sore from being handcuffed to another prisoner for hours.

the security guard at entrance of the courthouse nods her to the direction of the college and she heads up the road. sasha had never lived on her own before. until now, the biggest trouble she'd ever gotten herself into was bringing waterguns to school at the end of the senior year. they were confiscated by the teachers before anyone got wet.

that said, she's used to being the oldest of three sisters and taking responsibility for the pack, especially since she and sisters were on their own with me for the past 12 years. she realized how serious her job was while I was recovering from months of chemotherapy. so she doesn't complain and she doesn't get angry.

she is blinking in the sunlight and still trying to make sense of what happened during her arraignment. it was her first time in a courtroom. unlike her sisters, she's not a fan of "Law and Order." one of the men asked her if she was pleading guilty or not guilty. her father told her afterwards that that was the public defender. she wasn't sure what she was being told to sign, but she did it because she was told to.

afterwards, her younger sister told her that "the guy who said what happened," was the prosecutor. sasha said he told the judge that she had turned herself in and the police report showed that she was forthcoming and remorseful. the judge allowed her to go. sasha thought it was over.

that night, police were loathe to arrest sasha but the burly RISD public security officer insisted. he'd probably had it up to here with the boisterous new pack of freshmen. sasha said that when she "confessed," he said, "this is serious! the police are coming!" the arson police. they questioned her and quickly realized it was neither deliberate nor malicious.

disapproving, the scowling RISD public security officer closed the door on the little room sasha was held in while he conferred with them. sasha heard the same RISD public security officer say, "let's teach her a lesson - let her spend the night in jail." the next thing she knew she was being handcuffed and put in the back of a squadcar and drove her down to the station. she was still in her UNIS sweats - and she ended being stuck wearing the same clothes for the next 24 hours.

sasha had never heard the term "paterfamilias." when I was in college, the college administration became your guardians. they were protective of their students and our reputations. they tried to keep us out of trouble with the police and help us learn our lessons within the safety of the school administration. they would never have wanted to ruin the entire academic career or mar a life with an arrest record - especially when their job was nurture us and help us grow.

when sasha got back up to college, she was worried because she'd missed her morning class. her next class wasn't til 4pm so she thought she might have time to shower and change and have a quick nap before. she went back to RISD public safety to get her ID and phone back so she could call me and her father.

when she got there, they told her she was suspended.

she was forbidden to be on campus without supervision. they told her she could not leave the office. no longer a person, she is an insurance liability.

half-asleep and disoriented, she was made to sit in a chair for the next 7 hours until james (her stepfather) could drive up from the city to collect her. she had no cell phone, no computer, no book but she kept falling asleep anyway. a kindly school administrator brought her back a bagel but she was too tired to eat.

back in NYC, I got a call at 1:03am from the head of RISD Student Life. "your daughter's been arrested and she's in jail," he was seething, so angry i could almost feel him spitting through the phone.

i said, "are you sure? sasha? why?"

he said, "she set a bulletin board on fire."

at first, I almost laughed, thinking this was some kind of joke. "really?"

"we take fire very seriously at RISD. sasha has a lot to answer for!" he speaks through clenched teeth.

"there must be some mistake, sasha isn't that kind of a kid. she doesn't do those sort of things. what happened?"

"sasha is 18. she is an adult. if you want to know what happened, you'll have to call the police station." he gave me the number of the police station and his cell phone - though he made it clear he despised all the freshmen, and sasha most vehemently.

like sasha, i am equally baffled. i have never been handcuffed or put in jail or had an arraignment. i call the police station and the kindly police officer who had arrested her, reassured me. "she's a good kid, don't worry," she tells me. "i'll try and tell her i talked to you. they'll release her in the morning and she can call you then." she tells me that she wouldn't have even arrested her at all if RISD public safety hadn't insisted. "there was no real damage to property, no harm to anyone," she says. "i don't know why they wanted to send her down here, but it will probably be dismissed in the morning. there's not even a real charge."

i call the director of resident life again and tell him i am a single mother with two more teenagers at home. i am six hours away from providence and not sure what to do now.

he sneers and tells me that his only comfort is that he never made the mistake of producing his own teenagers. "i really shouldn't do this since sasha is 18, but i'll call you tomorrow and tell you what's been determined."

the next morning at about 11am, he calls to tell me that it's likely sasha will be sent home. he's not sure yet, but one should make arrangements to collect her. i've got parent-teacher meetings for rara and zarina and james is shooting a movie but he manages to shut down his crew by 2pm and drive up to providence.

a week later, sasha is summoned back to the school for a "disciplinary hearing." in a panic, i take her to a clinical psychiatrist to see if i didn't understand - and she was secretly malicious. but no, a thorough examination makes it clear that she is the girl we know and love. no desire to hurt anyone or destroy property. on the other hand, she is diagnosed with ADD inattentive disorder. in other words, she is shy and spacey but gentle, not defiant. we bring the psychiatrist's report to RISD.

RISD suggests she find an advisor for a disciplinary hearing. after 3 weeks in RISD, she has no one to turn to. she tells them that, so they suggest another student, just one year older than her, who is equally clueless about how to respond.

for two hours, sasha is grilled by four administrators and four students, none of whom had read her telling of what happened or the psychiatrist's report or any of the additional papers she included. sasha is not given any of the information used against her by the college. though there is a scratchy, black-and-white security camera film - which only shoots a frame every 3 seconds. in it, sasha passes with a group of kids, laughing and horsing around. her hands are never in frame, so without her own testimony, there was no proof she ignited it.

despite the scowling RISD public safety officer, sasha has to prove that she turned herself in. that is not on the record. now those campus safety officers, locals with a reputation for harshness towards the artsy rich kids who attend the college, have full police powers.

of the other students who witnessed the event, two came forward and corroborated sasha's story while the third one was so intimidated that he simply threw sasha under the bus. he was a boy who'd had his romantic advances towards sasha rebuffed and wasn't inclined to help at the risk of looking bad (he'd been there and done nothing to help).

of course, under the pressure of scrutiny, sasha dissolved into tears and was unable to speak.

the results of the hearing? sasha is suspended for two years. she can re-apply to RISD then.

the chances that she can get a place in another college after a disciplinary suspension are infinitesimal.

one of james' friends wrote a letter to RISD protesting sasha's treatment. as the father of a college freshman at another art college, he talked about his fear of the current criminalization of students.

he talked about the way in which the world has changed and humanity has been replaced by the requirements of insurance and legal structures. the way in which what is happening at all the #occupy movements is echoing what happened in the arab spring - and the way in which brutal police force has become accepted in retaliation for minor infractions. that we have become so accustomed to being treated harshly by the authorities that we are too frightened to protest.

in the meantime, sasha is sitting at home, in limbo. she's been cooking for her sisters, helping around the house. going with me to movies and surviving on the texts and emails of her friends who are all in throes of their first semester in university. they tell her about all their new friends and their favorite classes. occasionally, she bursts into tears, saying, "it's just so unfair..." but usually, she just says she's lonely.

more bizarrely, she wants nothing more than to be allowed to go back to school. she loved RISD. even though she spent the past two years studying art intensively for the International Baccalaureat, she focused on her passion, photography. RISD opened up a whole new world - drawing, painting, design. it was terrifying and thrilling. she knew she was behind the curve because she'd never learned those skills, but she was inspired by her classmates. "everyone here is so creative! they are always thinking of cool new things to do," she was exhilarated by the energy around her.

since our apartment flooded this summer, we've moved from one temporary home to another. our current tiny apartment is now crowded with all the things from sasha's dorm room. sasha shares a room with me and zarina shares a room with rara.

at 18, sasha is an adult according to the law. though if something goes wrong, or the college needs to be paid, they call her parents. despite that, what we can do to help sasha is limited. like everyone else today, we are subject to laws and rules that seem to defy intelligence and common sense.

everyone - from her school guidance counselor to people who've known her since babyhood - sent letters and emails to RISD vouching for her kind nature. we've had artists simply email to protest RISD's draconian response to a childish mistake. the administration responded with emails saying they needed to consider the safety of the other students.

as if sasha was not a student. as if her presence alone was a threat. however, no one from RISD telephoned or emailed sasha to see how she was.

we are all growing up through this incident. learning that all the idealistic things we've taught our kids - always take responsibility for what you do, apologize, be honest, protect your friends, trust your teachers and the authorities to look out for your best interests - are no longer valid in the present society. we've learned that authorities are not reasonable and wisdom is less important than face value.

this is where the innocence of childhood ends. but what goes in its place?