I am reading Veena Das’s Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, which is about how women get by and make do, how women “pick up the pieces” and “live” in “the very place of devastation.” Pushing against rhetorics of “transcending” or “overcoming,” Das foregrounds what she calls “the descent into the ordinary”: how violence and devastation continue to live around us, in us, as us, as we try to continue living. That “us” is a particular co-opting, but I hope not a completely unethical one.
Myths, legends, fiction, poetry, travel narratives, biographies, autobiographies—the genres that shape our worlds have tended to focus on men who move. The quest narrative focuses on men. With few exceptions, stories of migration focus on men. Stories of adventure focus on men.
Men leave. Women stay.
Or, men abduct women, displace them, and then leave them. The scene always features men leaving and women staying, whether in safe homes or broken homes, safe cities or unsafe cities, safe states or unsafe states.
Women stay to build and rebuild.
Women stay, Nalo Hopkinson teaches me, to plant food and to dispense medicine, to imagine that there might be something worth saving amidst devastation.
Women stay, I learn from those around me, as men run away from their parental responsibilities, proud to sire children, unwilling to provide the emotional and material resources those children need to thrive.
Women stay, as Das writes, to take care of the sick, to wash dead bodies, to provide emotional sanctuary:
I take her foot between my hands
Ben, shall I cut your toenails?
I do one each day. It’s too hard
to bend over longer than that.
We came into this world
with just our bodies
and even those
we’ll have to leave
when we go
–Shailja Patel, Migritude
In a matatu the other day
A little girl of three or four
sat on my lap uninvited, hesitant, at first,
as if to test my reaction.
When none was forthcoming
she made herself more at home.
I marvelled at such confidence –
the world must be such a safe place to her.
Another child in tow, her mom sat next to me
looking tired to the bone.
–Phyllis Muthoni, Lilac Uprising
What does it mean for a daughter to changer her mother’s wet diaper, to feed her through a tube, or wash her hair because she can’t herself?
–Rasna Warah, Red Soil and Roasted Maize
Men, I have found, announce their departures, make a fuss over leaving, demand attention. Women, I have seen, often leave quietly. Consider the banal scene of a man and woman hosting guests: the dishes that appear on the table, as if by magic, as the man chats and laughs; the dishes that are cleaned up afterwards, as if by magic, as the man rests because hosting is tiring.
Consider the equally banal scene of a husband or male partner bringing home unexpected guests because his wife or female partner is a “whiz in the kitchen” and “can whip something up easily.” Consider the labor unaccounted for in such scenarios: planning for surprise guests, catering to them, cleaning up after them.
I am reminded about care and repair through my own carelessness.
Perhaps it was an over-enthusiastic dog’s tail. Perhaps it was a passing human’s carelessness. Or a monkey chasing after hidden fruit. The plant’s stem was broken. I imagined that it would wither away, mourning what it never had a chance to be. A few weeks later, the stem had repaired itself. The plant was now crooked, angled as in a drawing by a mediocre cubist. The break had become a knot, a story to be handed down to future leaves. A small miracle of repair.
An unseen hand wraps saran wrap on a broken stem, coaxes growing to persist.
This unquiet demands a repair imagination, an imagination attuned to growth, an imagination that, amidst the devastation, can pursue freedom.
I keep thinking about those many unseen hands wrapping repair around broken limbs, repair around broken relationships, repair around broken possibilities. Trying to coax something to persist.
This work of staying and staying with.
A lot of time is needed to accept that trees planted in this land of sorrows have been able to bear fruit.—Veronique Tadjo, The Shadow of Imana
She is going to visit her mother in prison. She takers clothes, soap, a little food. The old woman is among the crowd of other prisoners. She cannot get close to her, touch her. They speak at a distance. The distance separating them is too great. She raises her voice to make herself heard, tries to make her emotion felt above the general din, the despair. But the words vanish into the tide of jostling bodies.
She no longer recognizes her mother on the other side of the invisible barrier, this broken damaged woman who looks like nothing.—Veronique Tadjo, The Shadow Of Imana
He wants to free his spirit from the enormous burden of his flight.—Veronique Tadjo, The Shadow of Imana
I am thinking about women who arrive early and stay late. Women who set up and clean up. The untime they occupy—the time before the event, whatever it is, and the time after the event. Multiply that untime. Stretch it from then to forever. And then stretch it again.
Octavia Butler writes about women who stay to care and repair.
Yvonne Owuor writes about women who return to care and repair.
Perhaps Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is really titled “The Men Who Walk Away from Omelas”
I write this amid news that children are being killed in Peshawar.