Every now and then, my dear friend Syndi shares with me voice notes of poetry; a tradition that she and her husband started. She has a very animated voice, I love how she recites!
So, thanks to Syndi, I get to experience a poet's world reveals itself, like drawing back a curtain, enlivened by the tenderness and mischief of her voice.
Today, I get to glimpse the world of May Sarton. The Work of Happiness. I here the words of this elegant American poet, via Syndi's voice in Istanbul, received on my smart phone, in the cosiness of my studio room on Bliss Street, Beirut. A great way to start a day in May. Delighted by the namesake, I replied back with a reading of Bliss by the same poet. And, from my window, I do have a night sky view, and though not roses, there are little bowls of fragrant gardenia, between my piles of books.
I'd like to share a story from child psychologist Dr. Bruce Perry's book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (2006), that questions the artificiality of therapist/client boundaries. The excerpt comes from the chapter called 'Tina's World' where Dr. Perry tells us about how his hesitation to lend a helping hand when seeing his client waiting for a bus on a cold rainy day. The client is a young child who had been sexually abused, and she is not alone waiting for the bus, but in the company of her mother and siblings, all together, a loving family exhausted by poverty and abuse. But they are not in session now, so it is appropriate to offer a ride? This is the doctor's dilemma. It is a sweet story, actually, because the insecurity is shared on both side, the 'therapist' and the 'client', laid bare in mutual humanity.
The scenario I'm sharing is with Dr. Perry and his supervisor, discussing on the case of the child who, he regrets mentioning, had been arriving late to her last few sessions.
"What do you think is going on here?"
"I'm not sure. I think the mom seems pretty overwhelmed."
"You must interpret the resistance."
"Ah. Ok". What the hell is he talking about? Is he suggesting that Tina doesn't to come to therapy and is somehow forcing her mother to be late? "You mean Tina's resistance or the mom's?" I asked.
"The mother left these children in harm's way. She may be resentful that this child is getting your attention. She may her to remain damaged," he said.
"Oh," I responded, not sure what to think. I knew that analysts often interpreted lateness to therapy as a sign of 'resistance' to change, but that was beginning to seem absurd, especially in this case. This idea left no room for genuine happenstance and seemed to go out of its way to blame people like Tina's mom, who, as far as I could tell, did everything possible to her help for Tina. It was clearly difficult for her to get to the clinic. To get to the medical center, she had to take three different buses, which often ran late during the brutal Chicago winter; she had no childcare so she had to bring all her children with her; sometimes she had to borrow money for the bus fare. It seemed to me she was doing the best she could in an extremely difficult situation.
Shortly thereafter, as I left the building one frozen night, I saw Tina and her family waiting for the bus home. They were standing in the dark and snow was slowly falling through the dim light of a nearby streetlight. Sara was holding the baby and Tina was sitting on the bench next to her brother under the heat lamp of the bus stop. The two siblings sat close to each other, holding hands and slowly rocking their legs back and forth. Their feet didn't reach the ground and they kept time with each other, in sync. It was 6:45. Icy cold. They would not be home for another hour at least. I pulled my car over, out of sight, and watched them, hoping the bus would come quickly.
I felt guilty watching them from my war car. I thought I should give them a ride. But the field of psychiatry is very attentive to boundaries. There are supposed to be unbreachable walls between patient and doctor, strict borderlines that clearly define the relationship in lives the often otherwise lack such structure. The rule usually made sense to me, but like many therapeutic notions that had been developed in work with neurotic middle-class adults, it didn't seem to fit here.
Finally, the bus came. I felt relieved.
The next week, I waited a long time after our session before going to my car. I tried to tell myself that I was doing paperwork, but really, I didn't want to see the family standing in the cold again. I couldn't stop wondering about what could be wrong with the simple humane act of giving someone a ride home when it was cold out. Could it really interfere with the therapeutic process? I went back and forth, but my heart kept coming down on the side of kindness. A sincere, kind act, it seems to me, could have more therapeutic impact than any artificial, emotionally regulated stance that so often characterizes 'therapy'.
There. That's the bit I wanted to share. Of course clear boundaries matter, but so does common human decency. And it can get messy when boundaries are blurred, but I doubt any serious damage can happen when the intention is an immediate kind of kindness.
Thinking about how we heal, I remember my Tai Chi teacher in Beirut, Amira Chouaib, and how she handled her sprained ankle. It was a bad sprain. What strikes me as I recall this is her attitude. She guided her regular classes, week after week, being careful with her injury, but always with a smile.
She did not expressed anger or frustration about it. Nor did she display over concern.
It was more an attitude of acceptance and trust. I remember being touched by her grace about the whole issue, as she was in pain and unable to do what she usually does. And yet, there was full acceptance of the situation, no resistance to it at all.
There's a saying in the field of therapy that goes along these lines. What we resist persists. Healing requires no resistance.
I saw the same thing when my Tai Chi teacher in Dubai, Yasser Belgrami, had to deal with a complicated eye retina injury that required surgery and compromised his movement for a while. He had to avoid strong light and avoid strenuous effort. When I visited him for classes, he was totally relaxed, accepting, trusting. There was no sense of heaviness around the ordeal. Rather, so much spaciousness.
I mention these two examples, strong powerful people who are, in a sense, trained to kill, because I was amazed that they did not express rage and frustration about their hurt and limitations. It was a learning that I felt very deeply because they embodied it so genuinely. Zero anger. No 'Why did this happen to me?" or 'Damn it! When is this gonna heal already?' These are people who know how to express fierceness when needed, and gentleness when needed too.
On the other side of the coin can be an attitude of negligence and denial. But that's not what I saw either. There was no pretending it didn't happen. There was no override and carry on anyway. No, there was a proper care. Without over concern and with the necessary adjustments.
As another remarkable fighter once told me, be careful not to exaggerate. Keep it real.
I saw my teachers meet injury with acceptance. Recovery was infinitesimally gradual, organic, and that's what they trusted. There were no extra layers of pressure or emotional resistance. And, bit by bit, there was full recovery. Each regained their respective capacities, were able to move freely again, to train, and even to exceed the capacities that they had before their injury. Slowly but surely.
I wonder about that internal quality of trust that allow us to accept injury and integrate it as part of life - not separate from life. I wonder how we can surrender to the experience of letting recovery happen without adding any pressure to its organic process. Like a closed bud of flower, you can't force it to open, it will bloom again when ready. And the best thing we can do is keep providing warmth, care and protection - to ourselves! - so that the internal magic of healing can happen.
A well-known and well-loved Syrian playwright, Ghassan Al-Jibai, passed away today. Like many, he had spent several years in prison, for being the free thinker, poet and playwright. He was, like so many fellow Syrian writers of his day - and so many poets around the world - not afraid to rage and to grieve, in fierce honesty. He passed away in Syria, never desiring to leave it, surrounded by his loved ones.
One of his films, A Journey Into Memory, (2006) has really touched me. Not least because it features three men in frank and vulnerable discussion of imprisonment and torture, and the difficulties of reconnecting with life after release. Three Syrian men, former inmates, are on a road-trip to Palmyra.
What strikes me today, watching it in 2022, post-Netflix, is the naturalness of the film. Unpretentious. Unexaggerated. The film offers a softness, gentler and slower than what we have grown accustomed to nowadays, with all the high definition and sensorial intensity. Here, these three men come to share from a very deep and real place. It is in Arabic, with English subtitles, a tribute to humanity at large.
Kindness is soft like water, and strong enough to carve mountains. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was an activist for peace in the midst of the Vietnam war in the 1960's, teaching and publishing and organizing youth groups to help rebuild war torn villages throughout his country, and internationally. His being was a being of peace. His activism was in the pure and steady quality of his presence, his unwavering dedication to a wisdom beyond war. He was a beautiful poet and, with his every step, a real change maker.
The world is alive with beauty, and his words help to open our hearts and see it. He writes to the living planet, a love letter, many love letters, his every breath a love letter until his dying day.
Dear Mother Earth,
Each morning when I wake up you offer me twenty-four brand new hours to cherish and enjoy your beauty. You gave birth to every miraculous form of life. Your children include the clear lake, the green pine, the pink cloud, the snowcapped mountain top, the fragrant forest, the white crane, the golden deer, the extraordinary caterpillar, and every brilliant mathematician, skilled artisan, and gifted architect. You are the greatest mathematician, the most accomplished artisan, and the most talented architect of all. The simple branch of cherry blossoms, the shell of a snail, and the wing of a bat all bear witness to this amazing truth. My deep wish is to live in such a way that I am awake to each of your wonders and nourished by your beauty.
Here are his Ten Love Letters to the Earth – Thich Nhat Hanh (emergencemagazine.org)
I spent a lovely evening at a little bookshop yesterday, literally a one-room bookshop on a side road off of Jeanne d'Arc street. The shop owner is an old friend of mine from college days, Adib Rahhal. He has made it a a warm painted yellow, mustard-coloured shelves and shades of ochre. It is a tiny place, but he still managed to include a coral coloured arm chair and a couple of wooden stools to sit and browse the wall-to-wall books. Music is always playing the background, some soft guitar or soulful vocalist.
People walk by. They might wave through the glass window or step in with a greeting. Often, they pick up a conversation from wherever it was last left off. Enquiries about some new publication or rare edition. If you happen to have time for a visit, he will make some hot tea.
People who stop by are quirky-looking and clearly passionate about something or other. Discussions about life, cinema, music, literature interweave. A Dance Mag, an experimental journal on movement that my friend Jana al-Obeidi created, for instance, is something that he's happy to stock. And the lovely illustrated stories by Luqoom created by my childhood buddy Racha Mourtada. And the beautiful poetry by one of my favorite painters, Afaf Zureik, published by Rimal Books. And so much more... jazz, poetry, psychology, politics, love.
Adib is like a chivalrous gentleman from the days of yore. He listens thoughtfully and generously. Sometimes, our mutual friend Mira Minkara, famous for her Tripoli tours and her love dramas, delights us with a visit. And my sister-from-another-mother Rayan Kahale .comes by as well, taking a break from work.
While the vast majority of his books are in English, he does make some exceptions for a few Arabic publications. For instance, the Ghassan Kanafani series. And independent publications, like the archival research on Arabic musical heritage by my friend Bassel Kassem.
Somehow, this little bookshop is a sanctuary of sorts, and a mosaic of beautiful things. I love coming here. It feels like the loud rush of chaos comes to settle. Chaos is fertile, but it can be exhausting. And so, Adib's little book shop in the middle of Hamra feels like arriving to a lake-side park bench. As I was leaving, I thought to myself, how lucky am I to be in Beirut and to have such friends.
I question the place of agency in the world of culture-making today. So much noise on freedom to express what exactly?
Social media phenomena are in my mind as I say this…. Have you noticed the recent trend, slapping an infant’s face with a piece of sliced cheese and watching the startle response? In the United States, folks are setting up their phone cameras for this slap-stick comedy and it is trending by the millions. Yes. Imagine. Silly laughter and an unwitting infant blinks at the camera with confusion. These cheap pleasure, spurred by the race for likes and shares, debunking the safety and privacy of a home, comes at what price?
No respect for child, no respect for food, no respect for family, yuck.
The latest in developmental neuroscience tells us that how we are treated, talked to, looked at inform us of our place in the world. Dr. Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory explains this as neuroception. If our space is cared for, safe and respected, we grow up with a sense of goodness and trust in the world. If our space is a matter of mockery and cheap laughs, catering to invisible online masses, it is scary to think what the future outcomes might be.
Excerpts from Little Death by Saudi author Mohammad Hasan 'Alwan - مقتطف من موت صغير للكاتب السعودي محمد حسن علوان
"كلما ردّدها أحدهم سمعها الناس هكذا:"آخر الاحزان"
و سمعتها أنا هكذا:"أتمنى لك الموت عاجلاً قبل أن يصيبك الحزن التالي".
من نحن بلا أحزان ؟ كيف نَأمَن على أنفسنا بدونها،ألا نَتيهُ في أودية الغفلة مثل شياه ضالة؟
ما أحب الحزن إلى نفس الصوفيّة ما أمقته على نفس الجاهل الذي أَلْهَتْهُ الدنيا.
…لا يعرف أن الصلصال لا يشتدّ إلا بالحرارة ؟
كذلك الحب لا يكتمل إلا بالألم .
يظن أنه لا يولد بعد ولادته مرةً أخرى ؟
و أن الله لا يصنعه كل يومٍ خلقاً جديداً."
On my way to Damascus today. Visiting aunts and uncles. It's been nothing but funerals there. An old lady that used to visit my grandmother passed away. I liked her a lot. Elegant woman. So I want to go.
I miss visiting older people. Family. They have so much love to give. It is an age where either love or despair prevails. There is no other distraction from this core question. Love or despair, love or despair, is the only question.
My uncle, a well-known doctor and professor in his 80's, has been depressed and aging rapidly since the war started. He is a tall man. He has been losing his balance. Not falling, thankfully, but heartbroken and feeling the world is no longer firm under his feet. His wife, my mom's sister, has always been like a second mother to me. They are anchors in Damascus. So I want to go.
He had spent his career dedicated to overseeing the education of medical students and to supporting the wellbeing of medical staff across the country, especially the rural areas. Generations of young doctors and nurses have been guided by his direction. My uncle was a serious man. He embodied that era of the 1960's, when a modernizing Arab nationalism witnessed region-wide educational reforms that created a palpable sense of progress and optimism. The world he has helped build is crumbling in darkness.
I found out that two of his former students, father and son, doctors the both of them, were killed yesterday. So I want to go.
What times we are living. Our countries, our families, our bodies are carrying such a burden of pain and loss and crushed hopes. How can there be such thing as a quick fix? Patience. Patience. They say, in Arabic, Patience is Beautiful.
Right now, the view of the Mediterranean blue is just about the most perfect soothing balm ever.