Ramadan Day 5

My Name by Sandra Cisneros

In English my name means hope.  In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.


It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse–which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female–but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong.


My great-grandmother. I would’ve liked to have known her, a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn’t marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. That’s the way he did it.

And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.

At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as sister’s name–Magdalena–which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least can come home and become Nenny. But I am always Esperanza.

I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do.

***

The other day I was standing at a bank teller poised with my two purchases, an umbrella and a tank top, debating whether or not to go into the clothing store. I had brought the receipt because I knew I would pass by this store on the way home from work. I had just finished teaching nearly twenty-five tenth graders drama for one week. Here what I learned: they know more about cynicism than I ever will.


I want that not to be true. But it does no good to cover up the rough life many young people have in this country. If you’re poor. If you’re a person of color. Especially if you’re both. If you’re a boy, a girl, queer, disabled. The list goes on.

When a teacher such as myself, relatively privileged — over-educated — from an ethnic group one student stereotyped as “never getting in trouble” (Chinese/Taiwanese) steps into the room of a summer program for low-income first generation (denoting college) kids from Newark, Camden, etc. probably the only thing I have to teach them about social justice (topic: criminal justice/prison industrial complex) is what one student raised her hand to say to me about the incarceration rates of Black men in this country — it’s hard to learn about it when all the stuff is happening in my life right now. I guess her question, if I could translate it, is: when will social justice happen for me?

I tell her the truth. I don’t know. But remember that every time you encounter someone who is judging your life, or making racist comments or stereotypes, think about how it’s their problem, not yours. Don’t take it inside where you are — just keep getting stronger.

So there I am, after class, next to an ATM, near 34th street Penn station, debating whether or not to return my purchases. I can only think about this lunatic petty shopping quest, in part, because I cannot think about that. I don’t want to think about what was underneath all the cynicism — the hope that I would treat them fairly, give them my attention and kindness, because despite all the crap that adults (and the sorry adult life) must heap on these kids — they still want better for themselves. I am scared that I want better for them. How can I help?

Life, it turns out, is full of interruptions. I am grateful to them. I trust them. They always seem to be leading me to a better place. At least — this is the litany of thoughts which reassure me whenever I realize that I am shuffling around on a fasting afternoon.

As I’m standing there, probably for a good half hour, it starts raining. I look at my umbrella, which I now know I am going to keep because it’s a Ramadan umbrella. I marvel at its flimsiness. I realize that nothing is making sense. I am rooted in a state typical for me during Ramadan — stillness physically, while thoughts move like a flashlight across my dark wall. I can’t really catch or hold on to anything. Nothing sticks.

My friend who I wrote about from yesterday’s post calls and tells me that she had a remarkable dream involving Hafiz. I treasure that conversation because it was an act of kindness to say to me — yeah, keep writing — I’m reading. Also, she gave me sound advice about what to do about my purchases. And, she told me about how poetry sprouts wings and takes us on board.

Don Eletreby writes me often to share a thought or two that he has after reading my posts. I find it indicative of his generosity. I appreciate my more silent audiences too. I know that blogs have the power of anonymity, and that means something — to be able to read what someone has written without having to actually deal with that person. I think about the bazillions of people out there who could be reading my website. They’re all rooting for me. It feels like I made that up. Did I just make up that number?

With all my good fantasies, they seem like they maybe aren’t happening. Just thinking about them cheers me.

Is that true for these kids? Is there a world of people out there rooting for them? Do they get to be on the right side of faith? I would like to think so. Some of them, some of the kids that are both smart and hard-working are really angry at their classmates — they want them to work harder. Will working harder solve things? Is there any such thing as dialogue?

Here’s what I do know: one of the kids wrote a dialogue about the issue of race. I had two other kids read it so that she could hear it being acted out. I was pretty upset because one of the other kids in the back of the room was messing about, and I had to escort him out of the room. I didn’t hear her explanation, and I didn’t get to hear most of the dialogue/play being read. I knew it was a thoughtful piece about race and reverse discrimination. I knew there was a story line by the intake of breath when she reached her conclusion. The class was ending. It was the last day. She took her play with her because in the shuffle, I didn’t collect back the pieces that were read in-class.

On the hour long train ride home, it started with an impulse, like shopping. I opened up the folder and looked to make sure she hadn’t left her play with me. I was pretty sure she had taken it back. I rifled through one paper after another. I didn’t find it. I searched backwards to forward. Became frantic. I went through three more times. I skimmed a bunch of the other dialogue assignments, hoping to see hers. I could not stop myself — my energy was almost fierce, despite my starvation and thirst. It struck me like a broken clock, stuck on the same hour and minute. I had missed what was truly important. Of all the things that I could have fixated on, I wanted to read her dialogue. This was the most important thing to me. Actually, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say in that moment, I felt that it was more important than anything else in the world.

In my gut I knew it. She’s going to be a great writer someday! Maybe a playwright? Maybe a novelist? Maybe a reporter? Maybe she’ll use her writing skills as an advocate? I don’t know. She’s not the only one.  Her classmates too.

I rode the rest of the train ride with glorious bursts of belief coming out of me toward these kids — rooting and cheering, screaming hoarsely, applauding wildly — I sensed their future accomplishments and sent up my prayers for their success. Their future is like the stars on the umbrella I purchased — they are hot yellow lights in an unknown galaxy.

I didn’t return the umbrella. I didn’t get to read her play.

***

Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentations, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding…

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!

by Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. by Stephen Mitchell

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