Suffering

The other day, I heard a little old lady tell a crowd of sexual assault victims, “You were not put on this earth to suffer.” It reminded me of a line from the book I’ve been reading, Strangers Drowning, about morality.

“Some think that suffering is pointless and wish it could be eliminated; others believe it makes compassion possible and is at the core of the human condition.”

I used to believe the former, used to wish no one had to endure the pain of suffering…I guess I still do, when I see it. But you can’t wish away suffering, it will always be, and if it breeds compassion, it is all worth it.

Jack Gilbert says it best:

A Brief For The Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Denim Day

I haven’t posted on here in a very long time! But I’ve been reading a lot lately and felt compelled to write this today:

Today is “Denim Day,” because on this day in 1998, the Italian Supreme Court overturned a 45-year-old man’s conviction for raping an 18-year-old girl. They overturned it, “because the victim wore very, very tight jeans, she had to help him remove them…and by removing the jeans…it was no longer rape but consensual sex.”

The day after the decision, women in the Italian Parliament protested by wearing jeans and holding signs that read “Jeans: An Alibi for Rape.”

Today, I went to a rally for Denim Day outside City Hall. Many elected officials and community groups I have previously spoken with for stories of mine were there. Also in attendance: members of the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit.

I scanned their faces, simultaneously hoping Detective Granai would and would not be there. I didn’t want him there because it would bring too many distracting memories and emotions to the surface. I did, I guess, because I had once found him quite comforting, as the figure I had briefly pinned my hope for justice on.

He wasn’t. The SVU Detective from that dinky little building on Grand Street who ultimately closed my case without even telling me was, though. It made me burn.

It made me burn to hear the Commissioner of Collaborative Policing pat herself and her colleagues on their backs for encouraging more and more women to report rapes to the police. “We’ve distributed 32,000 cards instructing people to report sexual abuse to the police in the past year.” So fucking what? I reported my rape to you around this time last year, and you didn’t do a thing. The woman, the “detective,” who didn’t do a thing is standing behind you right now.

“When more people are coming out and reporting domestic violence, we consider it winning,” one Council member said. No, that’s not winning. Winning is conviction, winning is prosecution, winning is justice. A 6.3% increase in reported rapes in NYC over the last year is NOT winning. A 6.3% increase in successful conviction and prosecution of rapists would be.

Women shared their stories today. One woman powered through her story with tears streaming down her face. I don’t cry about it anymore, except on April 3rd.

“We are not invisible” was chanted repeatedly. I knew the woman who closed my case didn’t see me, didn’t recognize or remember me. One woman recounted how, when she was roofied and raped ten years ago, she had been wearing a short denim skirt.

“Maybe your skirt was too short,” the officer had said when she finally summoned the courage to tell the people who are meant to “protect and serve” us. New York’s Finest.

Reporting isn’t winning, denim isn’t an invitation, and we have nothing to celebrate.

The Kindness of Strangers: Waiting in the ER circa 3am

I was sitting upright on the examination table, waiting
for that special team they call in for cases like mine
when a janitor walked in to switch out the trash.

“How are you doing?” He said
“Alright” – the best I could manage
“Then why are you up there on that table?”
A wry smile and silence
“But you will be alright.”
I nodded, “Yeah, I will be.”

“But you’re not alright now, so why did you say you are?”
“I don’t know, people lie about that all the time.
You ask how they are and they just smile and say they’re fine.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” he said, his tired eyes locked on mine,
“But there’s a time and a place for everything,
and you don’t have to say you’re alright right now.”

Some truths

Some truths:
1) You are not just who you are when you are who you want to be – you are also who you are when you are who you do not want to be.
2) If you are rationalizing something, you’re about to make a bad decision. You don’t need to rationalize a good decision.
3) It is not weak to admit that you can’t handle something. It is weak to fail to learn from your mistakes and pretend that you can and continuously make the wrong decision.
4) Apathy is the biggest killer of man.
5) If we don’t fight for each other we will never all be free.
6) Gentle, appropriate pressure over time yields results.

Some truths from Rumi:
1) Set yourself on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.
2) If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?
3) Be empty of worrying, think of who created thought!
4) Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?

The Importance of Thorns

I haven’t put anything up in months, & I felt this essay I wrote a while ago discussing a lovely piece of prose called St. Cyril’s Dragon: The Threat of Poetry by Dave Smith was a fitting post to resume with..

The Importance of Thorns

Threat, as defined by Smith, is “various as a heartbeat, [and] is the weight, complexity, difficulty, problem, resistance every poem draws energy from as it seeks resolution.” A good poem takes us out of our comfort zone, it disturbs us, and through threat is “manifests what is important to know. Threat engineers the struggle of self to come into being.” It is confounding to me how much of poetry, poetry without threat, has come into this idealized, soft form of art. We would never want to read a book or watch a film in which everything is serene and peaceful all the time.

Sure, one can come to brilliant understandings and reflections in loveliness, but I think it is truer to say that we are shaken in a beautiful way by discord, by threat. A poem needs a threat, a driving force, just like any other form of art does and just as our own lives necessitate threat. I believe that if one were to live out the entirety of his or her life without such threat, without the moment “when painful choice arrives,” that person has sorely missed out on the beauty of the bad and has been utterly shortchanged in his or her life experiences.

An easy, threat-less life, like a simple, threat-less poem, is one in which nothing is overcome, shaken, disturbed, and developed. It is lacking. Smith says, “no threat, no poem,” and perhaps I’m just a bit twisted, but I think threat is essentially always a good thing. To me, threat is synonymous with motivation – isn’t it the threat of failure that drives us to work hard, the “formative pressure” that inevitably shapes our lives?

As I mentioned in my response last week, there is nothing wrong with a lovely poem; poetry has a tendency to strive toward such loveliness and encapsulations of the beauty of the world, but I find that there is more to be gleamed from ugliness. And when the two coincide, when poems like those of Neruda, Trakl, and at times even Dubie, Wright, and Smith, jar us with their exquisite descriptions of such ugliness in the world, that’s when I believe that true loveliness is achieved.

The power of a poem, of course, comes from something more than merely strong descriptive words on either end of the spectrum – while something in me would be more inclined to read a horrifically disgusting poem  rife with words like “entrails,” or “fetus,” or “maggots,” without threat, a poem comprised of such cringe-worthy yet purposeless words is every bit as shallow as a poem depicting a viridian meadow bursting with wildflowers on a brilliantly sunny day. It is the consolidation of these two realms which makes a poem, as Smith says, one “that scares those who pay attention. It delivers truth we find hard to live with.” Poems in which the threat is has a force proportional to its release deliver us to a credible statement made or implied, and takes us on a journey through which we are able to comprehend, to quote Smith quoting Frost, something “we know but didn’t know we knew.”

For Smith, if the poem’s purpose is to “make meaning of action and to lodge it in memorable words,” akin to “images hung on a wall,” such images are “those which tell us what is most durable, which we admire and call Beauty because they summon from in us the will to do and to be good, and in Beauty, we see the sorrowful diminishing of what had seemed to us permanent.” This is the most perfect definition of beauty I have ever heard. Beauty is not simply what is pretty, what we find to be lovely, as seems to be the case in so many poems without threat, but rather a force that moves us, and has the power to make us realize the ephemeral nature of all that constitutes our lives.

In keeping with this definition of beauty, the ‘darker’ or surrealist poems of Neruda, Trakl, or Wright surely are far more beautiful than any gorgeous yet idealized depiction of something traditionally perceived to be lovely. To quote Smith, “To Miss O’Connor, life’s sweetness was dependent on what threatened it and upon the size of the threat. Without threat, the road of life is only a pastoral walk in the daisies. That is why poetry that fails to reveal and risk the life of the real self is no good to us.”

As Smith says, “Weak poems, pruned of thorns, barbs, and threats, console and soothe us; we all want the beatific promise. If it were not so, ever-positive Walt Whitman would have little appeal for us beyond verbal postcards from the travelogue of his imagination.” This may be true for many, and would explain the wealth of so-called “weak poems” in existence today, but I believe this statement to be true only in reference to the same sort of people who remain willfully ignorant in all aspects of life. Perhaps the sort who do not watch the news, because its all rape and war and death not at all directly relevant to them, or the kind who brush off the importance of things like having political knowledge of one’s own country, or the food they eat, because to keep blindly accepting and devouring whatever comes their way is far simpler.

These are the sort of people to whom Smith refers when he says, “Knowledge, to us, is always partial, inadequate, dangerous.” I prefer to believe that there must certainly also be many whose intrinsic curiosity hurls us away from stagnation, people who want to be pricked by a poem, to be unsettled and jolted awake. Good poetry uses the imagination to “dive down into the dark heart of experience and return with knowledge necessary to selfhood,” as opposed to “Fancy,” which Smith quotes Coleridge in saying is merely “an act an act of the mind that seeks escape from reality, creates false images, panders to us.” The power of well-executed imagination in poetry leads us to confront and comprehend threat.

Such threat bursts from every line of Smith’s “In the House of the Judge.” The threat of death, of our own mortality permeates the poem like ash, suffocating us. The poem is so densely packed with detail that it reads almost like a fully executed short story, and is obsessed with this image of ash, of the dead floating all around us. In this poem, we are brought into the very conflicted, fear-gripped mind of the narrator, who seems to be trying to convince himself that there is nothing wrong with the house and situation he is in – “night after night I stand now trying / to believe it is only dust, no more than vent-spew.” The narrator goes on to describe how he sees and feels this “flesh-gray sift” everywhere, on framed photographs, on bookshelves, in the house, and it becomes clear that these are the remains of those the judge has sentenced to death. The threat here is practically tangible, the particle remains of the deceased truly engineer the struggle of the poem’s narrator, and is the driving force of the poem’s conflict.

The narrator is indeed “shaped by the mica-fine motes that once were body in earth.” He is so plagued by the death, the audible weight, suffocating this house that his actions become rash and nonsensical. Here Smith manages to use imagination “dive down into the dark heart of experience” by detailing the manner in which the shapeless, formless dust, the only remnant of those no longer with form, becomes that which now comprises the entirety of the obsessed narrator who is still with form. This captures the truth that in our lives, such little nothings, such things that do not exist in physical form, tend to wreak havoc on our real, physical world.

Fight for $15 Rally

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Thousands of workers across more than 160 cities turned out for a national day of action on December 4th to demand higher wages and the right to form a union. The Fight for $15 movement began two years ago amongst fast food workers, but the cause has grown exponentially since being undertaken by citizens struggling to live on poverty-wages in various industries, including convenience store workers, airport employees and home care workers.

Rallies took place in Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Knoxville, Philadelphia, and here in New York City, to name a few, with strikers walking off the job in many more.

The crowd outside City Hall on Broadway and Barclay had incredible energy, complimented by a marching band performing while whistles and trumpets blared along. The atmosphere was hopeful and determined, despite the fact that many in the crowd were clearly still reeling from the previous day’s news that there would be no indictment for the cop who killed Eric Garner, as many of those in attendance at the Fight for $15 rally held signs that read, “Black Lives Matter”.

At a panel discussion put on by the Left Labor Party on Tuesday, December 2nd, Jake Streich-Kest, an organizer with the Fast Food Campaign, noted that, “Just recently a few workers from New York got back from a trip to Europe where they were visiting workers in Denmark and the UK. They spoke to fast food workers where they have a union, like in Denmark, where McDonald’s workers make $20 dollars an hour,” Streich-Kest said.

It is unarguably certain that McDonald’s and other massive fast food corporations are capable of paying their American employees living wages, given that McDonald’s pays their employees in foreign countries decent wages. While the average fast food worker makes a mere $8.69 per hour or less, the CEO of McDonald’s rakes in more than $9,200 per hour.

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Jackie M., a fast food striker and Wendy’s worker revealed to the crowd that she lives in a shelter because she cannot afford to live in NYC with the current minimum wage of only 8 dollars an hour.

Both city officials and low-wage workers alike spoke at the rally. Current New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer declared, “It is outrageous that corporations are making millions and all you want to do is take care of your kids.” NY State Assemblyman Carl E. Heastie, chief sponsor of the 2014 bill to raise the minimum wage, was also in attendance.

As a 2014 report from the AFL-CIO (a federation of labor organizations) reveals, in 2013, CEOs made 331 times that of their average worker, and 774 times more than their minimum wage workers.[1] That ratio marks a sharp increase from that of the 1950s, when CEOs made 20 times that of their employees, while in the 1980s CEOs made on average 42 times that of their employees.

It is not as though New York City workers are demanding the impossible. Seattle and San Francisco have recently begun the process of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Just this past Tuesday, December 2nd, the City Council of Chicago voted 44 to 5 to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13 per hour.

Raising the minimum wage would lift millions of workers out of poverty. It is truly unbelievable that we live in a world where our fellow citizens can work full time and still need to rely on government assistance just to get by. It is unjust to allow people to juggle two and sometimes even three jobs, yet still remain unable to pay their bills. And yet the sad reality is that Republicans in Congress continually fight to block a federal minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour. With Republicans winning big in the 2014 elections, the fight for fair wages may become more difficult. The importance of voting, however futile it may seem, however maligned the system may be, cannot be understated for matters such as these.

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All photos and videos taken at the Fight for $15 Rally on Thursday, December 4th. 

[1] http://www.aflcio.org/Corporate-Watch/Paywatch-2014 – Please check out their report for more unbelievable stats on the pay rates of CEOs and minimum wage workers.