Woman. Not Merchandise

A woman. Not merchandise.

Since I started this blog, Stories for Social Change, I made a point not to tell other people's stories.  I tell my own stories, because sharing stories is a form of agency, a way of being in the world, of creating new knowledge. Stories should be told by those who lived them.  So, here concludes my introduction, and here's the story of a woman who wishes to be called S.

I want to thank Michal and Idit of Awareness Institute for bringing her story to my attention.

Letter to a client:

I stand before you  with a short skirt and a pretty body. You pick me 'cause you like me. Burn through your wallet and acquire "sexual services". I know I'm smiling and it seems like I'm all into you, like you're so handsome and perfect. It's only pretend. Make believe. You're just a payday.  I close my eyes and wait for it to end, faking at orgasm so you'll finally leave me and my body alone. You're not even attractive or perfect, you lay your hands on me and I touch you, cold and impersonal. You don't even know my real name.

I run to drugs and alcohol, to forget our atrocious rendezvous. I pay for them from your purse. I am disgusted by you, by myself. I ask you to put on a condom, but you pay me extra to do you without one. God only knows what you've given me. For such a long time, I was ashamed of my body. It didn't matter that it was beautiful, it wasn't mine. It was yours. Until one day I took it back. I showered with bleach. I couldn't stand it anymore. The burns that covered my body now scar my soul. I lost myself, and nearly my life.

Today, I'm sober from substances, from you. It'll be years before I recover from prostitution. They call it post-traumatic stress disorder. I distanced myself from men and had relations with women. Mood swings, aggression, depression,  I was volatile. I got alarmingly skinny and all my friends abandoned me, because nobody wants to be around a former whore. Nightmares that haunt me, flashbacks that swamp me with anxiety. Making me reach for pills, pills that let me sleep. Let me escape. When I'm alone I can feel hands touching me. Before I got to bed, I lock down the house. Never shower before everything is sealed shut. When I wash the dishes, the chilling waters send shivers down my spine, reminding me of the strangers that invaded me as cold sweat rushes over me.

You think that if you paid, it's fine. But that money is tainted, and it withers away like a breeze. Before you call a brothel to use a woman who is only there out of distress, think back to what you have read here. Maybe you should decide to be more than just a man, to be a human. Put down the phone.

 Breaking the chains of silence, Illustration by Daniel Gouri de Lima breakfree

Never Let Them See You Sweat: Really?

Prologue

Earlier this week we lost Buja, our mixed breed ravishing dog, who has been with us for the last 17 years. She was a part of us, of our family, and we loved her dearly. As she got older, it became increasingly difficult and painful for her to walk, yet she continued to walk around the house, simply because she wanted to be near us. This blog post – and Daniel's illustration – are dedicated to her.

SWEAT

This blog post had a difficult birth. I had the thread of an idea, but I didn’t know where to take it. I needed some stories to help me make sense of it and some time to mull things over and process the raw material.

As happens from time to time, it started with a flash, a fragmented thought. A few weeks ago a sentence got stuck in my mind and refused to leave me in peace, demanding that I respond.

 Never Let Them See You Sweat

 This catch-phrase – a slogan from an advertisement for deodorant – came from nowhere and refused to budge until I gave it the time and reflection it deserves. Above all – until I worked out why it had popped up in front of me in the first place.

I embarked on a dialogue with this phrase.

 “To start with – why? Why should we never let people see us sweat? Everyone does it, don’t they? It’s just the body’s natural and healthy way of cooling itself and releasing toxins. So why should we keep it a secret? Why should we pretend that we don’t do that?”

“What do you want from me,” the sentence retorted. “I’m just a punch line in an advertisement. Maybe you need to work out why I’m bothering you so much.”

 The pest of a sentence was right, of course. It wasn't about him, but me. He came to bother me while I was preoccupied with thoughts about sweat. The sweat that comes from a real effort – a physical effort, a mental effort, the effort of thought. I was thinking about sweat that pours out in an attempt to contain and process the sadness and countless emotions aroused by various events and encounters that have shaken my soul, on the personal and the political levels.

 So as happens from time to time, writing became a process of deciphering. Sweat became a metaphor, a symbol representing something else. Maybe tears or sadness. In short – an effort of the heart. And in the end that is what was written: Sweat. Sadness. Effort.

Sweat

“You’ll feel a slight sense of pressure in your lower back.” If I remember rightly, that’s how Sheila Kitzinger, the high priestess of birth preparation books, described the pain of contractions 25 years ago. “Yeah, right,” I thought to myself while crouching on all fours, a small elephant in a cat/dog Yoga position on the lawn outside the delivery room at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. I tried to “breathe over the contraction, following Kitzinger's teachings.  “Pressure in your lower back” didn’t even begin to describe my feelings just before entering the delivery room: enormous excitement, fear, and a realization that something big was going on inside me and in my life.

“When breastfeeding, it’s important to consume a large quantity of liquids,” I read in the same book, after returning home with my treasure, my first son, in my arms. Why not just say that women who have just given birth sweat like racehorses?

The first visit to the mother and child clinic was a really special day. Daniel, the new stroller, and I made our way up the steep road to the clinic. Daniel, the stroller and I – together with flowing streams of sweat. By the time I got to the clinic I was soaking wet. Beads of sweat covered my eyes, smudging my carefully-applied makeup and filling my mouth with a salty taste.

My sense of excitement at this new first was muted by a sense of tremendous vulnerability before the wiry, efficient, and bone-dry nurse with her judgmental gaze. Maybe she wasn’t really judgmental and it was just me, with my new mother vulnerability, who felt that.

Sadness

 

“Tell me, do you have something against sadness?” the flight attendant asked me as we served out food and drinks on a plane full of passengers and not full enough of oxygen headed for New York. He added a hint of a smile to show that he was aware of his own charm. Even at a distance of 30 years, I must admit that this is one of the better pickup lines I’ve heard. A combination of the professional humor of flight attendants and a pretension to understand the complex soul of women who love tormented men…

 Sadness is a wonderful word – poetical, creating associations of a thread of sorrow, melancholy, soft grayness, malaise. The sweat of the soul that seeks to cool itself and rid itself of toxins.

 Never Let Them See You Sad

 

That’s an advertisement slogan they haven’t used yet. Anyway, no elixir  or medicine can really cure sadness. Like sweat, sadness is the body’s totally natural reaction to pain, injustice, and cruelty. Sadness is anger’s melancholy sister, the one that turns its energies inwards.

 I’d guess that almost every language in the world has a word for sadness. How many poems must have been written in all these languages about sadness? Thousands, if not more.

Anyway, it strikes me how rarely I use that word in the context of my work. That’s why they invented words such as fascinating, complex, moving, and challenging. As if sadness is something that doesn’t have its own place in the context of struggles for social change.

Effort

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.” This is the terrible punishment God imposes on Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They won’t enjoy the fruit-laden trees any more. Effort – that’s the punishment for their lust for knowledge. Their curiosity. Their subversion. Their disobedience. Effort and sweat. If Adam and Eve had only been more obedient and less curious, we would all still be living in Eden without effort and without sweat. And without knowledge.

It took me years to accept effort lovingly – not to be afraid or ashamed of it. Not to be angry with myself when things don’t work out. After all, nothing important ever comes easily. Letting go never comes easily. Neither does love, learning, or acceptance – and certainly not change.

Even so, in the hundreds of grant proposals I’ve written and read over the years, I’ve never seen anyone write: “Inequality (or oppression, racism, violence…) is a serious social problem that makes us very sad. Sometimes this sadness is so profound that for a moment it challenges our belief in our ability to change things. It demands that we invest almost superhuman efforts, to sweat, to neglect our loved ones, and to argue with those closest to us. But we care too much, and we would never thinking of abandoning the struggle. So we will continue to make an effort, to sweat, and to get angry – so that we can change things. We’ll be delighted if you see fit to support  us…”

 buza2

Effort: in memory of a beloved dog. Illustration by Daniel Gouri De Lima

In a soft, circular movement

 The twilight hours are the best time for sweet sadness. Late on Friday afternoon, Jerusalem is so quiet. I can hear Dana, our splendid black Labrador, biting her own feet energetically. Outside the last birds are singing.

All around me is quiet now and I can listen to the sadness. A sadness that is sometimes the product of the gap between what we manage to do and what’s still left to be done. A sadness born of longing, of something stolen that cannot be regained. A personal sadness and a political sadness at the way of the world.

I began writing in sadness at a phrase from an advertisement, and I end in a soft, circular movement. I gather in my pain, sorrow, sweat, and effort together with those of the people who touch my heart during the encounters this work sparks. Yes: I choose to end this process of writing with a soft, circular movement. Because compassion is a political act toward ourselves and toward others. It is born of the sad realization that so much needs to be repaired here. There is no reason for us to waste our energy trying to pretend that we aren’t sweating or that we aren’t in pain.

The Juniper Tree, Israel 2013

On the Death of Innocent Children

 

Dedicated to the memory of Imani, Madlene, Lama, Eden and Yahav, and the little boy and girl from Jerusalem.

 

Difficult stories are difficult to tell and difficult to hear.

Difficult stories make us want to look away and block our ears.

Difficult stories make us want to keep our distance. To tell ourselves that it won’t happen to us; that it’s a very extreme case… an exaggeration… the product of insanity.

Difficult stories expose us to unspoken and hidden aspects of the human soul.

Difficult stories are heartbreaking and frightening. They touch on problems for which we have yet to find a response.

Stories of children murdered by their own parents are so difficult story, indeed unbearable.  But they are stories that must not be neglected.

A few months ago, I happened to come across an old Irish folktale called The Juniper Tree. I read it breathlessly and with tremendous sorrow, aware that I would return to the tale again. The story tells of a woman who longs to have a child, dreaming of giving birth for many months as the seasons change under the juniper tree. She eventually delivers a wonderful son but dies in childbirth. The child’s mourning father buries her under the juniper tree. Some time later he takes another wife and together they bring a daughter into the world. The stepmother – the classic evil character in so many folktales – hates her stepson. With typically elegant cruelty, she slaughters him and serves him up to his own father as stew. Her little daughter watches her actions in horror and then gathers up the bones of her dead brother and buries them under the juniper tree alongside his mother. The slain boy is then miraculously reincarnated in the form of a talking bird who flies around the land, constantly repeating the same song:

“My mother she butchered me,

My father he ate me,

My sister, little Ann Marie,

She gathered up the bones of me

And tied them in a silken cloth

To lay under the juniper.

Tweet twee, what a pretty bird am I!"

And so the bird-boy flies through the land telling his story – the tale of a particularly cruel and despicable murder. As he does so, he collects treasures and becomes very rich. Eventually he returns home, kills his stepmother and is reunited with his father and sister to resume a happy family life.

(See the following link for the full story:

http://fortheloveof.sugarcube.net/juniper.htm)

If you find this story cruel or shocking, you’re quite right. The product of the wisdom and experience embodied in folktales, this story stems from a period when many young children suffer an appalling death from hunger, cold and disease, and when many women died in childbirth. Long ago, when this story was passed on by word of mouth, it was intended to bring comfort or closure to those who heard it, since it carries the promise that the child will eventually find peace.

Perhaps unwittingly, this story also shows how complex the parent-child relationship can sometimes be. It exposes a wide range of emotions: from the powerful longing for a child and maternal sacrifice through to the profound and chillingly cruel hatred of a parent toward their child.

For me, the importance of this story lies in the fact that it is told from the child’s perspective – the child whose restless spirit continues to float through the world in the form a bird, singing its terrible rhyme so that more and more people can learn how his short life came to its end.

When a boy and girl are killed by their mother or father, the whole country is appalled for a few days. Experts discuss parental distress and crises and the desire for revenge that can follow separation. The welfare services and the police go on the defensive. We all look for someone to blame, some thread of logic, some kind of solution that can help prevent the next disaster.

For some of us, these stories heighten our own memories of the violence we suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to protect us, love us, and defend us from all evil. Too few of us dare to try and imagine what these innocent children experienced in the last moments of their lives. We rush to hug our children a little more firmly than usual in a silent promise to make sure to keep them safe and sound.

As the days pass, some new horror begins to dominate the news columns. We forget the children who may now be birds or may simply be completely alone in the soil that has become their home.

 Junipertree1

Illustration by: Daniel Gouri De Lima

Children are wonderful, funny, clever and mischievous. They make our hearts sing and brim to overflowing. They are also rebellious and disobedient; they make a mess and they get on our nerves. They say and do things that make them seem like little magicians. They inspire laughter and gentleness in us, and they also drive us to frustration. They are who we once were and who we might have been. They bring out the best in us, and sometimes they test the limits of our patience.

Children are our responsibility. As a society, we are judged by our ability to give them what they need in order to grow and manifest their full potential. They need our love, respect and care.

I come from a generation that grew up on the Israeli musical Spanish Garden. I can still remember the part in the musical where the mother sends her children to the neighbor to look after them. I guess they were getting on her nerves too much. And the neighbor always understood that the mother just needed a short break from her children, particularly on long days during the summer vacation. But all this was long ago when low-rise buildings opened onto shared courtyards. When you knew all your neighbors and could rely on them to help when things got tough.

What I’m trying to say is that we must also love the children’s parents. Particularly the mothers, since they are still usually the ones who do most of the childcare in the family. Maybe if we care more about the mothers’ wellbeing and security we can prevent at least some of the murders down the line. And such murders will happen again, because too many people are left without any solution when they plummet into distress and despair.

A new year is just beginning. We are a society that prides itself on our love of children. Maybe this year we can really love them.

Three short stories: redirecting the gaze

 I haven’t written for a while. I’d like to tell you that I haven’t found time or space, or that I was letting my ideas mature at their own pace. But the truth is that my inner critic paid me a visit and overstayed her welcome. She sat on my shoulder and mocked me like the evil angel in cartoons. And she wouldn’t stop talking. But in the rare moments when she fell silent, my words began to coalesce to form thoughts and sentences.

 When I can’t write I turn to all kinds of things. First of all, I talk to myself. I also bake, and I found myself launching into a detailed study of Queen Victoria’s baked goods (scones, to be specific). I walk for hours, attempting to escape my inner critic and hoping I’ll lose her as I turn a corner.

The gaze. I’ve been thinking a lot about gazes and glances lately. I’ve probably spent too much time reading critical theories: Edward Said, Gilbert and Gubar with their madwoman in the attic, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Yehuda Shenhav, Hannan Hever, Louise Bethlehem – and Foucault for dessert. Reading so much literary criticism leaves you helpless in front of the text, forcing you to dive in and trust the text, and trust too in your own ability to wrap it around your finger, knead and sense it, and declare that you’re beginning to understand. So I’ve been preoccupied by the definitive, suffocating, restrictive power of the gaze, and by the strength that comes when we deflect our glance to one side. I’m busy writing stories around this theme.

 The Queen and the Mirror

The queen looked at herself in the mirror, suddenly gripped by a sense of weariness with this daily ritual. Again asking who is the fairest of them all, and again hearing the answer that she already knew in her inner heart. She isn’t the fairest of them all – there are others fairer than her. There always were and there always will be. For some time she has been aware that the bored mirror was already turning its glance to others. Sometimes she asks herself why she doesn’t simply break the mirror and have done with it. But that’s not what she’s going to do today.

She missed her daughter Snow White. She understands why she had to move so far away from her and away from the cursed mirror that ruined their relationship with its irritating beauty contests and its incessant judgmentalism.

 She removed the heavy velvet cover from the mirror and looked at it, rather than at her image reflected in it. “Though fair ye be…” the mirror began to recite its familiar sentence. “I didn’t ask you,” the queen remarked as she continued to examine the mirror. The mirror was confused, uncertain as to how to react to this new information. Uncertain that it had anything to say other than repeating its well-worn phrases about who was the fairest and such like. The queen drew a determined finger along the decaying wooden frame. “You’re full of dust,” she declared indifferently. She continued to look at the mirror with the same piercing glance it had cast in her direction all these years. “I don’t like it,” the mirror said, like a five-year-old boy who has been chastised for some offense. “Really? You don’t like the way I’m looking at you? You feel exposed, vulnerable, somehow diminished?” The queen inquired in a tone of artificial empathy. The mirror was really scared now. It knew how powerful the queen was. As hard as it tried to catch her in its gaze, she always stayed strong. She could move mountains if she wanted to. But over the years he had always managed to deflect her own gaze and her powers away from himself. He had managed to convince her that Snow White was the enemy. He knew how to flatter her and offend her, and how to send her away to take out her rage on Snow White. But Snow White was far away now. Only the two of them were left, and she wasn’t afraid of him anymore. His comments didn’t bother her. And her gaze was fierce and piercing.

 Jack. Jack and the Beanstalk for you

Eventually Mom stopped being mad at me, after she realized that in return for our only cow I had gained the whole kingdom of the evil giant. Not bad for Jack. Dumb Jack, they used to call me. Because I was a bit different, like the people they talk about at school on special days when they teach us about the proper attitude toward “the other.” Those were the only days when I didn’t get beaten up in recess. At first I believed everyone when they called me dumb, because they really did seem different from me, and they were in the majority. But no-one dares to call me Dumb Jack anymore because I beat the evil giant. Everyone believes that I expelled him for ever after climbing the magic beanstalk up to the clouds, fighting and tricking him and winning all his treasure. Now everyone wants to be friends with Dumb Jack.

It’s true – for a long time I believed them. If people tell you something enough times, eventually you begin to believe it. All the time I heard them saying “he’s got ants in his pants” and wondering whether “a different framework might be better suited to him.”

But like I said, everyone wants to be friends with dumb Jack now. Because if I was so successful and managed to get to rich and powerful, then they must have been wrong about me and I’m actually a big success story. And all this thanks to the giant.

 When I got up there to his palace in the clouds, he gave me a long, hard look.

“Who are you?”

“Jack, Mister Giant. Dumb Jack.”

“Dumb? You certainly can’t be dumb if you’ve made it all the way up here. I’ve been waiting for years for someone to have enough sense to take the dry beans, plant them, wait for them to grow and then climb up here. You’re the first person who had what it takes to do that.”

“What it takes?”

“Come on, do I really have to spell it out for you like the moral at the end of a fairy tale? You had the imagination, the hope, the faith, the patience, the courage… In a nutshell – all the qualities of the hero in a story.”

 No-one had ever spoken to me like that before. No-one had ever looked at me in that way. I completely lost my fear. Moving forward, I sat next to him.

“So what happens now? Why was it so important for you that someone would come up here?”

“Because I want to quit. I’m tired of frightening everyone. I never imagined how much damage frightened people can do.”

“So why did you keep on frightening them?”

“Because it was a very powerful thing, it was hard for me to give it up…”

 So basically the giant and I had this long chat. It’s not like we became friends or anything, but the way he looked at me changed my life. For the first time someone was looking at me and didn't laugh or scold me when I looked back. Actually he seemed to need my glance, as if he hadn't seen himself for a long time.

 In the end he did good by me, that giant. He agreed that I could tell everyone that I fought him and won so that they’ll all think I’m a hero and they’ll realize that I’m not dumb. I think this giant was actually my good fairy, because as soon as he had finished his task he vanished.

 Since then, I get invited to all kinds of places to tell my story. Every time, in every school, I look around for those kids. The ones who get put next to the teacher so they don’t disrupt the class. The ones who seem to be dreaming instead of listening. The ones who hope that today, because it’s “Different Children’s Day,” they won’t get beaten up in recess. I look for their eyes.

 redirect2

Illustration by Daniel Gouri De Lima

“The glances,” she says, “were what caused me the most pain”

“One day I went to visit her in that place where they put her. They said she was suffering from mental exhaustion, but I knew that she had lost her mind because of everything that had happened to her. Every day I used to walk in the cold and rain and snow. I tried to bring some little object with me that might make her eyes see me again. But nothing worked. The glances people cast at her were the worst. Knowing glances. Glances that burned wounds of shame in the skin. And she wasn’t there to tell me that neither I nor she had anything to be ashamed of, because she’d stopped looking. I guess it was just too painful.”

Every so often she looks up at me, checking that I am recording every word she says. Checking to see whether I look pitying or ashamed. Whether I am glancing at her or looking away, lest I be infected by any of the terrible pain she has carried alone for so many years.

“Their glances… I will never forgive them for their glances. Because they knew and they remained silent. Because they didn’t do anything when she cried out until she was broken. They went inside their homes and closed the windows and doors, and they kept on looking out from behind their closed windows as if what she has, or what I have, is infectious. As if looking at me like that means that they are okay. That they are protected.”

She curls up in her armchair in front of me, a small, childlike woman. She signals to me to stop writing and to come and sit next to her. I go toward her and she holds my hand firmly. Her own hand is withered, bony and small. “Promise me! Promise me that one day you will tell her story. Promise me that you will see that justice is done to her. Everyone must know that she wasn’t to blame for anything. It was the cruelty that broke her. Everyone’s cruelty – those who hurt her and those who abandoned her.”

She looks straight at me, searching in my eyes for what she has sought in vain in the glances of those people. I know she is looking for the rage in my eyes. For the pain, for the cry she cannot shout out herself. I know that she is looking for the tearful smile that will let her know how grateful I am for having her in my life.

Translated from Hebrew by Shaul Vardi

On Power and its Limits

Many, many years ago, I was a little girl; a little chubby, with spectacles, and very innocent. I was walking home from school, when I saw them, waiting for me at the street corner, the girls who were my friends and class mates. I did not expect or foresee what ensued. They had me down on the ground, and L., who wore heavy orthopedic shoes, kicked me right in the chin. They laughed. I cried, of course. But when they saw the blood shedding from my chin, I think they were a little scared, and a little sorry. "Oh, kids can be so cruel sometimes", said the adults with a frown, as if this cruelty came out of nowhere, as if it weren't acquired. As if kids didn't reflect back to adult society what they learned about bullying and abusing those who were weaker.

This childhood story came back to pay me a visit tonight, as I was writing about this notion of helplessness, when I take a symbolic kick to the chin. That first, overwhelming sense of helplessness when I read the newspaper, watch the news and get outraged by an elected official's hate speech.

So, I wanted to write about that feeling of frustration, of clenched fists and tightened jaws in the face of smugness.

Then I wanted to write about frustration transformed into the desire to act;  to strike a pin in the pompous hot air balloon;  To scream at the top of my lungs that the king is naked and stupid.

I wanted to write about change that will come; that could come; that should come.

So, here are two stories about power relations and about using wisdom to shift power relations.

Consider All Eventualities[1]

 

There was a king in Copenhagen. He was exploring the stalls of a market one day when he saw a fine tent with a notice outside, `Wisdom for sale.’ He asked the proprietor how much the wisdom cost.

“It isn’t cheap. Wisdom costs £100 a portion,” replied the young man.

The king thought this was expensive.

“I can’t sell it for less,” insisted the young man.

The king decided to buy a portion anyway and handed his money over.

The young man looked at the king thoughtfully.

“Consider all eventualities,” he said.

That was all the king got for his money.

Eight days later, he called the royal barber to give him a shave.

“I warn you,” he said to the barber, “if there is one drop of blood

on either my face or the razor, I’ll have you beheaded.”

The barber was too terrified to shave the king and he was asked

to fnd a replacement. He returned home and told his apprentice

that he was needed at the castle.

“You are going to shave the king,” he explained,” but there is a condition.”

A short while later, the apprentice presented himself at the king’s  castle .

“You understand the condition?” asked the king.

“My master’s explained everything,” replied the boy.

The king’s face was soaped and shaved without a drop of blood being shed. The king looked at himself in the mirror.

“Well done,” he said to the boy, “but weren’t you the least bit nervous?”

“No, Your Majesty,” said the apprentice. “I always consider all eventualities.”

“What do you mean?” asked the king.

“If I’d nicked your face accidentally, I’d have given you a much bigger cut across your throat.”

The king was so pleased with the answer that he promoted the boy to court barber.

A dear fellow storyteller, Stephen Badman, shared this story with me. I like it; I think it's a great story about the limits of power; about the fragility of those in power, especially when faced with those who dare speak truth to power. The king threatened the court barber that he will behead him, should he spill even a drop of his blood; but the apprentice reminded the king that he has the power – and the capacity – to not only cut his chick, but his throat as well…

The Puss in Boots: subversion or inversion

Toulouse, our gorgeous kitten marches every now and then into my tiny and very untidy office, jumps into my lap and purrs. There is something about this little furry creature that makes me take a pause, stroke his neck and play with him, until he's had enough. He then leaps down, lands softly on all four and moves on. He's just too adorable; so independent, yet so indulgent, at the same time, and always on his own terms.

Toulouse reminds me of the Puss in Boots. That special talking cat; the trickster, who thanks to his inventiveness, initiative and presence d'esprit succeeded in securing for his master, the son of a mill owner, all he could ever dream of and more: a luxurious castle, ample farm lands and the hand of the princess in marriage. And how does he do it? Well, first, he's just a great PR wizard, who knows that what really counts is what people believe in, and not what is true or false. And how does he overcome the terrible giant sorcerer?  He shifts the power relations. He makes the sorcerer turn himself into a little mouse, and then devours him. And how does he make him do that? He teases him; challenges his ego, plays a reverse psychology number on him. He tells the sorcerer that he doesn't believe he could turn himself into a tiny animal, such as a mouse. The giant sorcerer the has to prove that he can. His vanity is the end of him.

This folk tale, like many others, was created and told at a time when kings and nobles were born into their status, wealth and privilege, and when poor people could only tell stories about overcoming mighty sorcerers and claiming their assets.

But is the story of Puss in Boots merely a story of inversion; of the success of one individual to rise from rags to riches?

Folk tales are always more, always about more than what first meets the eye. Folk tales were always a way to criticize social injustice, to point to that which is good and that which is bad in the human nature. The mighty sorcerer stands for the evilness, cruelty and arbitrariness of power without limits, of those who hold the social standing and wealth; who gain more and more of both at the expense of the hard working folks.

The Puss in Boots is yet another story about the limits of power. Every mighty ruler has its blind spots and Achilles heel, which we can use to promote social change; whether it is vanity, or an over inflated ego, or complete loss of contact with real people and their real needs and concerns.

OK. I got a little carried away, perhaps, or hit a writing block. But then Daniel, my illustrator, gave me his interpretation to my text. Our very own Toulouse – as a Super Puss in Boots. Our Toulouse, as a super hero, who knows that with great power, comes great responsibility to do good.

puss in boots2

I hope these stories will remind us all just how important hope is; how important hope for positive change is; remind us that we have the capacity to bring about change; not by force of magic, but by transforming frustration into agency, and into the power to do good.


[1] Collected by the Danish Folklorist, Evald Tang Kristensen, translated into English by Stephen Badman.

Women share stories, men listen

Something exciting, heartening and yet disturbing is happening in Israel in the media and social media. One by one, courageous women rise and share stories of the sexual violence and harassment they've endured. First, there was a trickle, then a flow, and then a river of stories. A river of stories confirming the sad truth: there is not a single woman among us who has not suffered from some form of sexual violence at least once in her life.

And every story I read awakens in my body the memory of each and every forced touch, violent and intrusive and brings back the notions of pain, disgust, fear and shame.

It was almost 20 years. My son, Daniel was five. We lived down town in an old house, at the end of a small, almost invisible alley, just off the high street. I was on my way home, Daniel asleep in my arms, and as we turned the corner, I noticed him, stalking us. I hate stalkers; I hate how the slow down when you do, pick up the pace when you try to make a run for it. I hate the way they make you feel so insecure and vulnerable.

Outraged and out of breath, I started screaming. I wanted the whole street to hear me, for every single light to shine through the window. I screamed at him at the top of my lungs to leave us alone, to get the hell out of my street. I told I'd scream until all the neighbors will come down. He turned and walked away. And I knew, there and then, that every scream I let out was for all the times I didn't, for all the times I just froze, very quietly.

Yes, I, too, like so many other women, have such stories to tell. They are kept in some drawer, deep down in some closet. Because you so want to let bygones be bygones and just forget and move on.

But these stories, if we don't unleash them, they grow really scary demons in our souls. They cast a shadow over the great joy that is in intimacy which is the fruit of choice. They rattle that basic, vital sense of security we are entitled to.

So when we share these stories, we set ourselves free and other women as well. We provide an account of what the world, our society, our work places; our public spaces look like through our eyes; through the eyes of women.

And we hope men will listen to these stories as well. Because if so many women are affected by sexual violence in its various forms, then men are affected as well; as partners, fathers, brothers and friends, and sometimes, as victims of violence themselves.

It is important that men will listen to these stories, so that together, we could over the monster of violence. Because positive change begins we silence is broken.

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Chasing the demon away with the fire of story. Illustration by Daniel Gouri De Lima

"Coats made of words"

“And I continue to spin, and weave, and toss those coats made of words to the air – hoping that someday, somewhere, they will set someone free (358).”[1]

Some years ago, I wrote a paper on the potential healing power of folk and fairy tales for women and children, victims of abuse. Writing the paper was a journey through endless pages of tales and texts. In this journey I came across a book: Mirror, Mirror on the wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer. Of this collection of women writer’s encounter with fairy tales, one touched me the most: “Transformation” by Terri Windling.

Windling articulates, so poignantly, how folk tales and myths can help us make sense of our own stories:  “In the pages of myth and folklore texts I discovered what it is I had been through: a rite of passage, a shamanic initiation as practiced in cultures the world over, a journey to the underworld and a ritual rebirth (357).”

Folk and fairy tales are filled with violence, cruelty and injustice, but also with magic, triumph of good over evil, and a happy ending. They are terrible and ambivalent and disturbing – and – fascinating, exciting and inspiring. Kind of like our lives as human beings.

Take for example, the story of The Three ravens.

I grew up on this story, about the princess and her brothers and the wicked step mother who casts an evil spell on the brothers and turns them into ravens. To undo the evil spell, the girl must take a vow of silence and weave coats from nettle leaves for her brothers. Her fingers bleed, yet she keeps silent for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days, until the coats are complete and the spell is broken. Here's the tale, recounted by the magnificent John Hurt, the Storyteller.

 http://www.tvmuse.eu/tv-shows/Jim-Hensons-The-Storyteller_378/season_1/episode_6/

Like so many folk tales, it is so beautiful and so disturbing, at the same time. It is made of the potent raw materials that make up the magic formula: an absent, spineless king, a wicked queen (a worthy opponent), princes and a princess, sweet and meek and suffering.

It is a disturbing story of forced silence. A story of extortion and sacrifice.

It is a disturbing story of abusive relationship between (step)mother and daughter.

It is a disturbing story of the reluctance to share power, privilege and resources.

It is a disturbing story because it sends a troubling message that agency and proactively are for wicked women.

But folk and fairy tales continue to thrive because they are multi-layered. Folk tales are a simple way to say more. Sharing the story of the three ravens is a great way to start meaningful conversations about these disturbing issues: about male and female representations, about agency and activism of women, about the relationship between mothers and daughters and between women and men.

As storytellers, we have the capacity to disturb the silence. Silence may be forced upon us, or we may wrap ourselves in silence out of fear, or shame, or guilt. Sometimes we keep silent to protect ourselves or others, and sometimes we keep silent because there's no one there who listens.

Sometimes, the best way to set someone free is to tell a story; to untangle the knot of shame.

breakfree


[1] Windling, Terri. “Transformations.” Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales. Ed. Kate Bernheimer. New York: Anchor Books, 2002. 350-358.

Raw Materials

Rage

The clerk at the District Court gave me the look, that particular expression that is a mixture of suspicion and indifference. I had come for my divorce papers. Sadly, I had grown accustomed to this look –  a stare that bores right through me,  reminding me that I am merely one among the tens of thousands of women who have passed through these chambers. I had learned to tell my story again and again, asking for the form –  that piece of paper, that document that will finally unravel the endless entanglement  that it takes to obtain a civil divorce in a country that doesn't allow civil marriage.

Waiting in line and walking up and down those Kafkaesque corridors had become a part of my daily routine. I was a number; I was just another woman encountering the inevitable frustration that bubbles up when you face the men who have the power to help you to exercise your own rights.

But on that day, I snapped. The cashier who was supposed to collect the payment for "providing personal information that belongs to the citizen" was chatting on phone, making a point of ignoring me. When he finally put down the receiver, he looked right through me and engaged in a lively conversation with another clerk, who had also caught that virus that causes you to view other people as if they were transparent.

I stood there, humiliated, drained of the last ounce of my energy.

In helpless rage and deep pain, I started to cry.

 Then they both looked at me, a crazy woman crying and demanding to see their supervisor.  It worked. I paid and stepped outside, into the bright light of the outdoor air. On the way home, all I could think about were all those other women who have been trapped in that abusive maze of institutionalized bureaucracy.

I am not quite sure what wore me out more – the rage or the pain.  I fiercely held on to both. They nurtured my sense of purpose. I realized that I was experiencing a peculiar form of power relations. The burden of proof was on me, not on the system that was supposed to respond to my plight.

I held on to the rage and the pain; I felt as if I were holding on to a sense of righteousness that would fuel my sense of purpose.  I held on to the rage and the pain as they dug trenches of warfare consciousness in my soul.

Yes, I was fighting a monster. The kind that threatened to break my spirit, that sent me back on a journey to the saddest, most vulnerable places.

 But at that very moment, right there and then, I met my fairy godmother, the little girl I once was – innocent and funny, sad and dangerously curious, trusting and compassionate. I embraced her and she taught me to look for all the fairy godmothers in my life, she showed me how to ask them for help and she helped me realize that I didn't have to face the fear alone.

Sometimes, the little girl I once was merges with the little girl I gave birth to and together they teach me a lesson about the importance of imagination and compassion.

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Drawing by Daniel Gouri De Lima

Imagination

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all there ever will be to know and understand."         ― Albert Einstein

I used to day dream.  A lot. It was my favorite pastime when my parents would take their afternoon nap and we were supposed to keep quiet.  Imagination has always been and still is a good friend in times of trouble, those times when I simply must imagine a better world, a better reality, a place where I will fit in.

The capacity to imagine a better world is crucial. It is a life force. It is my antidote for the rage, the pain and the frustration that are part and parcel of working for social change.  Imagining a better world enhances our hopes and dreams,  but it also exacerbates our greatest fears and anxieties.

It was Daniel, my first born, with his rich imagination and keen sense of justice, who first introduced me to the world of super heroes and she-roes. If not for him,  I would never have explored the deep, mythical layers of super heroic stories. Today, he gave me this drawing of Superman – the ultimate super hero who carries the weight of the world on his eternal shoulders. In the eyes of his arch enemies, his longing for home is his weakness. But that longing is precisely what makes him such a great character.

He is the Knight of Compassion, able to hear a cry for help from the distant ends of the world and to fly there in a split second and even able to turn back time. Yet every now and then he, too, needs a helping hand. He, too, needs a close human connection.  He, too, yearns for compassion.

Compassion

Sometimes, resistance means creating a different language.  Resistance requires that we unlearn some of the things that we have been taught – such as that only the strong survive or that only the strong have the right to survive.

Sometimes, to resist is to redefine the sources of human strength and resilience.

To resist is to insist on holding on to assets that have no financial or material value.

Compassion is a form of resistance. It is a challenge to those who would rob us of our right to hold on to memory, identity, home.

Compassion is the ability to free ourselves – and others – from being ashamed of our vulnerability.

Compassion means holding ourselves to the highest standards; it means showing up and being present with the full power of our humanity.

To show compassion is a political act of caring. It means that we have recognized that passion and emotion are vital components of the work for social change.

Anchors

I returned home after eight intensive days with the amazing trainers and participants in the Rockwood Art of Leadership. Eight days of learning, reflecting and connecting. Eight days of time out, away from the demanding daily routine, an opportunity  to ponder the raw materials of inspirational leadership for social change.

Then I came home. The dogs and the cat were the first to greet me.

And then, one by one, my family gathered. My two heroes and one she-roe; my loved ones, who kept the fort when I was away, who understand my urge to wander sometimes, who agree to share me with my labor of love.

I am grateful for them and to them.

To my man who gave me that soft, exhausted look, who is with me all the way, even when he winds up absorbing the rage I fail to contain.

To my son, the young man who has taught me what true courage really means.

To my little girl, whose wise, sassy, playful eyes are my Gemini Cricket.

Pay Attention, Draw, Sing

The Art of Paying Attention

"Lavender has such a strong smell, it's like someone yelled so hard they became hoarse," said Na'ama, my 7 year old.  And I found myself wondering if there are smells that are like a whisper or weeping or a caress or a scream.

 And if sounds have voices, then colors must certainly have voices, too.

Then Na'ama encouraged me not to be embarrassed to admit that I love the smell of lavender.  For me, it has the sound of the expanse of the infinite.  In purple.

Smells have all sorts of voices.  And colors do, too.

Na'ama smells like vanilla; like cookies and ice cream and milkshakes and warmth and home.  She is the fragrance of laughter , defiance and curiosity.  She pays attention to things.  She is perceptive.  She reminds me to pay attention to things and she has many magic tricks to get me to pay attention to her even when I am busy or troubled or impatient.

 In a world that doesn't give a damn, the demand to pay attention – like paying attention itself – is a form of defiance, of resistance.  And sometimes, paying attention is the difference between life and death.

 If someone would have paid attention, perhaps the two little Bedouin sisters from Ein Fura, Rimas and Osnad, only three and five years old, would still be alive .http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4383806,00.html  The papers reported that they were "not known to the welfare authorities" nor were they registered in educational facility.  Their mother loved them and tried to fight for their lives, but no one paid attention.  The people who should have realized the value of these children's lives –  the life of any child in the world – didn't pay enough attention.  Now a commission of inquiry will be established to find out why no one paid attention to the cry of the mother who foresaw that the worst of all was about to happen.

In between spins, the noise of whirling beds and the cost of maintaining the royal palace at Caesarea and the smoke screens of the winds of war, society is forgetting to pay attention to the fact that there are children here, and teen agers, and men and women whose sense of basic security – their physical safety, their basic mental and physical existence – is being stolen from them again and again.

Change begins in that moment when the silence is broken and we take care to pay attention. Before the next tragedy happens.

 שברון לב

Heartbreak, Daniel De Lima

Drawing Change in a Palette of Colors

Last week, I met a wonderful woman, Panmela Castro. She is a Brazilian graffiti artist who has decided to harness her artistic talents and her leadership abilities for the good of feminist activity and women's rights.  She came to Israel as a guest of Shatil, to  participate in a conference marking Shatil's 30th anniversary, entitled, "People Change Reality."

 Meeting with a woman nearly 20 years younger than I, from a country that is so far-away, whose personal story is filled with courage and determination and talent and creativity, provided me with an opportunity to look at things in a new way.

Panmela creates giant murals – colorful, fascinating, moving, always picturing large, beautiful, mysterious, overt women, whose eyes are penetrating, bewitching, accusing, defying definition, avoiding our control.  She pours renewed life into the image of Eve biting into an apple, paying the price for daring to be curious, daring to rebel.

She goes into the favellas of Rio, armed with a ladder and spray paint and creates, by herself and with the community, colorful wall murals that provide an opening into a discussion about women's rights, gender equality, violence against women.  And people come to draw, to spray paint, to play, to make their voices heard.  And then, they are able to listen.

 Her drawings make people stop, reflect and pay attention, to pay attention to the voices of the colors and make their own voices heard through color.

 I saw her in action.  On Sunday, we drove down to Tel Aviv for a graffiti workshop with Achoti (My Sister, the Mizrahi feminist movement), on Matlon Street in Neve Sha'anan in south Tel Aviv.  It's the part of town that the municipality takes pains to ignore.  We sat, men and women, crowded into Achoti House's coffee shop, listening to Panmela's story. Then it was our turn to tell a story.  In color.  On the wall.  We created the image of a large woman, larger than life, full of color, a reflection of the diversity of the good people in the neighborhood. There were moments of magic, as we painted and sprayed together and wrote out wonderful words like peace, hope and "I have a dream." And at the same time, we asked troubling questions – is graffiti good for the neighborhood or not and why does graffiti only show up in poor neighborhoods and never in the city's prosperous northern neighborhoods, where everything is orderly and clean and there are even garbage cans.

 Graffiti, like all art, is neither good nor bad.  It is what it is, says Panmela.  Art is a tool that serves us to call for attention, reflection, discussion, exchange. Art, especially visual art, is a way to present messages so that sometimes they can penetrate the filters of social and political conditioning that serve to repel information that contradicts the observer's worldview.

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In Jerusalem, Panmela drew a mural on the wall of the Railway Park.  An image of a woman with blazing, penetrating eyes and birds, strength and freedom.  Next to her drawing, we opened up a space for children and adults from the community to draw and write.

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The colorful walls in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv remain as a speaking, conversing witness to the potential power of art in the service of social change: to stimulate, to trouble, to move, to open up additional circles of discourse.  And to remind us.

To remind us to pay attention.  To pay attention to the voices that have not been answered.  To pay attention to the hues of the colors.

If you love, you embrace

 Many years ago, almost in a previous life, I fell in love with Brazil.  Through a man, the people, the music, the food and the tastes and the smells and the colors and the chaos.  A beautiful country – tempting, dangerous, cruel, fascinating.

A wonderful child was born out of this love and today he is an even-more-wonderful man. A wealth of memories, at once sweet and bitter, and the rounded, soft language that rolls on your tongue, which I have kept to myself.

 The meeting with Panmela suddenly unleashed so many memories that I had kept in a drawer, somewhere in my heart.  Meeting her brought up into my consciousness the memory of my first meeting with that land and her people, the time I first felt like Gulliver, so tall, so white, so different, when I fell in love in a place where some of who I was has remained.

 It turns out that our souls can keep a tremendous amount of information, forgetting that it is there until something happens – an interaction, a song, a picture, a smell that suddenly opens that forgotten file on our hard disk. That's what happened to me when I heard that song, as part of a campaign initiated by a network activists that Pamela has established together with several of the greatest veteran and popular musicians of Brazil, calling for an end to violence against women.  The melody isn't very interesting, the words are simple.  And yet, as I watched the clip (don't worry – I've put in a link), tears filled my eyes, my throat choked up. I was moved.

 Some of this was very personal.  Memories of a time that was and is no longer, with all of the good and the terrible that were part of it.  Singers who were part of my cultural education.  A meeting with a younger, more innocent version of myself.  Everything came up to the surface.

 But there was something else there, too.  Something that moved me because a great part of my life (too great a part, if you ask Na'ama) is devoted to the world of social change.  The song is completely made up of words of love, gentleness, respect, concern.  It is aware of the patriarchal power relations in the society it seeks to impact, yet it does so gently, in friendship, enlisting the men while stating clearly that violence against women is a social problem, not a woman's problem.  The song is critical without being judgmental.

Na'ama would probably say that the song smells like vanilla, more of a caress than a hoarse scream, sweet rather than lashing out.  Watch and decide for yourselves.  I've included a loose translation.

 http://youtube/UDtH_-SQQBQ

 If you love, you embrace.

We have come together here to say

No more humiliation.

There's a limit to suffering.

We have come to ask each of you

For peace and contentment.

For a day that will give birth to a new day

For a tomorrow that will be much better

Chorus:

If you love, you help, if you love, you try

To provide affection and to give love.

If you love you take care gently, if you love you embrace

You never hurt the woman you love.

With responsibility

With heroism, with courage

We can, really

Save more and more lives.

All that we have to do is condemn.

We all see what is happening here

We can't deny or ignore.

Women, citizens

It doesn't matter what color they are, or how old they are, or what they weigh

You are all so beautiful.

Friend, sister, mothers

Wives, girls, grandmothers.

Kindness must rule the day

Discrimination is a thing of the past

Say no to criminal cowardice

It's time to change the situation

It's time to change your attitude, my friend

To fearlessly denounce [violence]

We can no longer be silent!

No more machismo!

No more violence!

Enough! Stop it!

If you love someone, you embrace them.