It Was All a Sham: vol. 3

The Woman On the Moon

We got our flights to Benin after I was cleared for travel at my post-op appointment. Now I lie awake at night wondering how the past months in New York have slipped so precipitously through my fingers. I look at the October calendar on my wall- a painting of a bare-legged woman sitting atop the moon. She’s going somewhere, though her head is down and her eyes are covered. She’s seems more in motion, in fact, than I do.

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The List

I am haunted by everything I have not done. Here they are in a list lurking behind my eyes: study enough French (why did I let my study fall off??!); wash my hair; pitch essay to new outlet; cancel gym membership; see friends (who haven’t I seen? Will they be mad if we leave without saying goodbye?); tell everyone we have a moving date (Oct. 23); do an interview for a new story; post ads for furniture (did Mat do that?); send in absentee ballot (cue Jennifer Lewis singing: “Get your ass out and vote”). Pack. Everything.  

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The Giveaway

I readied my plants and posted signs in the elevators and the mailroom of my building. “FREE PLANTS AVAILABLE IN 4J!!,” they said in green sharpie (green for plants). The plants were all gone in three days. The last two were claimed by the shady man who lives on the 5th floor who I always imagined was in charge of the building’s drug trade. But he showed up at my door one night looking sheepish and thanked me for my generosity when I placed the potted plants in in his hands intoning their care instructions like a mantra. “Maybe I was wrong about him,” I thought, as if a man who sells drugs can’t also have an appreciation for green plants. I have to believe they will be happy.

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It Was All a Sham

I stood on the couch pulling books from the wooden shelves mounted to my living room wall. I made three piles: coming to Benin, going to storage, and give-aways.

There are the Nikki Giovannis and Alice Walkers of my teens and early 20s; the Alan Watts and Joseph Campbells of my mid 20s; the Zadie Smiths of my late 20s; the Toni Morrisons that feel timeless; and the dense row of paperback play scripts containing roles I have played or lines I have dreamed of speaking on stage. Each contains a world with remnants of the self I was when I read them matted to the pages.

At an interval, I caught sight of a book that I’ve been mad at lately. It’s cliché to say that books are like companions, but for me they really are. And the one I was looking at conjured the sting of betrayed friendship.

When I moved to New York from Philadelphia in 2008, fall was descending on the city and I was enveloped by the transformation. I spent my days in the West Village where I was acting in a play. The trees lost leaves and I became more reflective as I grew the limbs of my new identity. This all sounds very romantic, but everything invited reflection. I didn’t have to be at the theater until the evening, so I spent many days wandering around eating ice cream cones, passing hours in bookstores reading books that I couldn’t afford to buy. But there was one book, the book that presently seems to have betrayed me- A Year With Rumi, Daily Readings by Coleman Barks - that I decided I needed to have.

As the anxiety of my move to NY increased, I needed something to keep me grounded. I'd sit cross-legged on my bedroom floor, read a poem from the collection and focus on breathing. When I first began, for some reason, I felt a strong desire to read the poems in their original language. As soon as I could, I began taking Arabic lessons just to be able to read Rumi (which lasted only a few months before I decided I didn’t have time). Though I read it almost everyday for years, it will always be connected to that first autumn in NY.  

But what we cherish can betray us. One night a few weeks ago I came across an article about a new translation of Rumi’s masterpiece, The Masnavi. The headline jumped out at me: “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi.” The erasure of which the writer speaks was done by Coleman Barks, the “translator” of my Rumi collection. I’d loved this collection for years and now I was learning that Barks doesn’t read or write any Persian and has never studied Islamic literature. The book I’ve cherished has been a...sham. Besides the fact that Barks’ versions of Rumi have received major acclaim, the biggest problem is they completely strip the poems of their Islamic and Quranic references at a time when Islamophobia has made life for Muslim Americans scary and dangerous, when it would have been useful to acknowledge that the most beautiful poetry of devotion the world has ever known was written by a devout Muslim and rooted in the Quran.

Some of what makes moving hard is nostalgia, but what is nostalgia other than objects and images spun into identity upon which we drape the beautiful weight of sentiment? What if our precious objects and images aren’t exactly what they seem? I have an image of myself as a young woman in New York reading Rumi as the city ever so subtly turns yellow and gold. But a large part of these memories, the poetry that I held as a guiding light, turned out to be seriously problematic. It may well be said that I have never read Rumi.

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Juicy Mango

Benin has four seasons- two rainy and two dry. This year, the first rainy season started with swells of heavy clouds and downpours that leaked into the house. And then there were Parakou mangos- small yellow mangoes from a town in the north called Parakou. Roadside markets suddenly teemed with them. Every few days we bought them by the bunch and they ripened quickly. Ripe, their pulp turned into something like sweet preserves; you could almost drink it from a hole in the skin.

When I think of reading poetry in Benin it is only poetry I already know. But maybe next year, in the first rainy season, I will squeeze myself into a spot of shade after a rain while eating a Parakou mango and read new poetry. It will be poetry that matches the atmosphere and mood, something which marks the changing season.