Poetry “talks in bed”

4.

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,

Lying together there goes back so far,

An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.

Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest

Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.

None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why

At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words at once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

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Philip Larkin, “Talking in Bed”

Poetry is loving… Silently

3.

Friendship or love involves opening up.

Baring the heart of one to let in the fire of the other.

It is self-obliteration in favour of the other.

Where there is a seed of suspicion there is distrust.

Where both are rock-bottom weak and harmless,

There will grow a joint strength to protect the duo.

Since even I distrust myself at times, most times

A friendship that gives one some other soul

Who is as foolish as one is just too good to miss.

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Dedicated to those whose love crosses the boundaries of “time and space”…

Taban Lo Liyong, untitled, in The Words that Melt a Mountain

In silence, poetry (re)unites…

2.

the truth – don’t they say? – is painful


and needs, you know, your blood


needs your wounds


only through these will the life you sought in vain

pass – if it ever does pass through –


together with the wind’s whistling and ghosts

 

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To the one stranded on an island, sharing a similar predicament…

 

 

 

Polluted by memories

Like everyone else, I have favourite movies, directors, writers, songs and song writers, and I keep returning to them in a cyclical way, not regularly, without following a particular routine, but often enough to discern a pattern.

If you happen to know me in real life or follow this blog, you must have already noticed that I am quite fond of Bergman (not so much as a movie director as what I would call a philosopher), Calvino (in particular his Invisible Cities), Bukowski (the poet, not the writer, a qualification most literary critics would deny him), Camus, and most recently Eddie Vedder – an obsession which is bordering on the pathological, but that deserves another post – to name but a few.

I know, a very eclectic list of strange bedfellows. There is thread that runs through all of them however, and countless others that I have not cited here. They are all haunted by loneliness and belonging, space and time (cities, past-present-future) and the meaninglessness of life. As I sip my Staropramen alone in one of Lund’s landmark bars, Ariman, I’ve been pondering about how we mark the places we live with memories, some good, some bad. Polluting them, so to speak – since good memories are more similar to butterflies than turtles; they never last long, in most cases leaving behind more misery than joy.

I remember the first time I came to Lund. It was 2007, as part of a research network established by a Swedish colleague who used to live in Turkey. We were staying at the good old Duxiana (Thomas had not gone bankrupt back then), having fika next door, at Coffee Break. Call it getting old or tired, I thought I could live here. For a while at least. And I did. I came back in 2009 and spent three months here. I loved my friends but I also loved solitude. I was in the midst of a protracted and painful process of making peace with it anyway. So I returned.

I soon realized that this was not a place to “die” if you are alone, without a family – of sorts. Then he happened. I did have a family “of sorts”. Then he became sick. I had to be there for him, no matter what. In any case, I had nowhere to go (back) to.”

Time to revisit Calvino I thought: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

I chose the first one. I adapted; acclimated myself; I “became such a part of” the Swedish way of life that I could no longer see the inferno I was living in. When I did, I compared it to the other infernos I lived in, and there was no comparison. My inferno was everybody else’s Eden. A promised land that took good care of me and my son, that appreciated my work, valued equality and freedom more than any other place I’ve been to.

And what about my part in the creation of the inferno, I also said to myself. Inferno is something “we form by being together”, wrote Calvino. He was certainly right. I had made choices, not all of them right or conducive to my personal Eden. So whatever the inferno was, it was also my own doing. I was the one polluting Lund with bittersweet memories. Yes, a life spent in between home and hospital was not particularly sweet either, but there were moments to enjoy, to cherish, before everything got worse. Have I made the best of those fleeting moments? I am not sure. As Eddie Vedder would say, “never been too good at happy endings” – or enjoying “happinesses”.

When the first strategy didn’t work, I opted for Calvino’s second suggestion, seeking and learning to recognize “who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno” trying to make them endure. He definitely was one – “the” one. There were others too; but they disappeared one by one. I found new ones; they weren’t enough. The city of my dreams was polluted beyond redemption. And the pollution was getting thicker and thicker; the air too difficult to breathe; the places I frequent too contaminated by bad memories to purify.

Yet “the” one does not let life go. The precious one who gave birth to “the” one does not let “us” go. Living (in) the inferno requires “vigilance and apprehension”. I have neither of them. I have nowhere to go either. I have no will to go and start over…

“So I imagine in a month… or 12
I’ll be somewhere having a drink
laughing at a stupid joke
or just another stupid thing
and I can see myself stopping short
drifting out of the present
sucked by the undertow and pulled out deep
and there I am, standing
wet grass and white headstones all in rows
and in the distance there’s one, off on its own
so I stop, kneel
my new home…
and I picture a sober awakening, a re-entry into this little bar scene
sip my drink till the ice hits my lip
order another round
and that’s it for now” (Eddie Vedder)

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On Swedishness, stoicism and drama queens

Stoic, n. and adj. “One who practises repression of emotion, indifference to pleasure or pain, and patient endurance”… Drama queen, n., “A person who overreacts to a minor setback or who is prone to exaggeratedly dramatic behaviour; (also) a person who thrives on being the centre of attention.”

The way they are defined by Oxford English Dictionary, almost antonyms, right? If you use them to depict the cultural characteristics of a particular group of people, they certainly are – polar opposites that represent two very different mindsets, perspectives on the world and the vicissitudes of life, and on how to cope with them. I am sure some of you know the orientalist binary oppositions of thinkers like Montesquieu between North and South, which associate all that is good with the North and all that is bad with the South. “As you move toward the countries of the south”, Montesquieu writes in The Spirit of the Laws, “you will believe you have moved away from morality itself.”

Well, we should definitely “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”; these stereotypes have had an amazing life span, still continuing to shape the way we think about peoples and their cultures. Individuals too. We tend to praise stoic endurance and self-sufficiency, at least in more individualistic societies. We associate it with strength of character, freedom, a prerequisite of emancipation from oppression, however defined. And there are very few places or contexts where “drama queen” would denote something positive. Who likes needy, noisy people? Who enjoys the company of people who crave for, in fact as the OED claims, “thrives on”, being the centre of attention?

Nowhere more so than in Sweden! Being a Swede means being self-sufficient, silently enduring, private… Avoid confrontation at all costs – “lay low, keep a low profile” as a friend just told me. It is no coincidence that the two words you learn first when you move to Sweden are lagom (everything in moderation; just the right amount) and jantelagen (the Law of Jante which promotes modesty, or a belief that individual achievement and success are not things to be proud of – you’re no better than the others!).

Now if you are not familiar with my academic work, you may think that I am reproducing the same stereotypes here. Far from it. Cultures are historically and socially constituted; they are not homogeneous, and of course they are subject to change. And yet, in each and every society, at any particular point of time, there are general tendencies that you need not ignore – or you could, at your own peril. In today’s Sweden, the dominant tendencies you are expected to abide by and respect are those I have cited above.

My dear friend, the historian Lars Trägårdh, has called this “the Swedish theory of love”. In a brilliant article he and another dear friend Henrik Berggren have co-authored, “Pippi Longstockings: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State”, they define it in the following way: “…the Swedish theory of love posits that all forms of dependency corrupt true love. Only mutual autonomy can guarantee authenticity and honesty in human relationships.” Lest be misunderstood, this is of course a historically rooted praxis that marks the institutions of the Swedish welfare state, not an essential-peculiar cultural idiosyncrasy: “the primacy of individual autonomy has been institutionalized through a plethora of laws and policies affecting individual Swedes in matters minute and mundane as well as large and dramatic.”

Why this conceptual, semi-academic, musings? A knot in my stomach. Yes, you have not misread it; this is all because of a knot in my stomach. A profound sense of indignation – feeling victimized and helpless; knowing that whatever I do or say, under the current circumstances, I will “bury myself deeper” (again referring to the words of the friend who wisely suggested me to lay low).

For some time now, I am losing all the battles I am engaged in, and the funny – no tragic – thing is, I haven’t started any of these battles. Yes, I am a fighter; I would not avoid conflict if I believe I am defending a right cause (I may be wrong of course but that’s another question). And yes, I have not always picked my fights wisely in the past.

Not so much recently. I fight cancer and I fight the current government in Turkey; that’s all!

I know that, as the wise Byron Katie once noted, “defence is the first act of war”. But surely defending your rights is not? Or is it? Should I turn my other cheek when I am slapped simply because I am surrounded by a cultural environment that does not condone any kind of confrontation?

Rhetorical question. In Sweden, I should. The only thing I can do is to avoid the slapping to turn into whipping, or beheading. All in the name of higher values that are hardly upheld by the majority – a “secret” that everybody knows. And do not ever refer to extenuating circumstances; you are just making up excuses for your acts that defy the accepted norms. You are being a “drama queen”. Shut up and endure. Stoically. Like a proper Swede.

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Day of reckoning

We have a virtual family. The neuroblastoma parents. A closed group on Facebook with over 3000 members. All sharing the same predicament. Suffering from the same ordeal. Asking questions, trying to learn from each other’s experiences, getting advice; sometimes just venting out their frustrations with the “normals”.

These are some of the things we, as a family, share, and you, the “normals” don’t and cannot understand. (Quotes are anonymized and you cannot find them on google since this is a closed group.)

“Nobody understands what we went through or are going through.”

“It’s so true. Ppl ask how he is but there not really wanting a full on answer. Then say but he looks so healthy! I want to scream at them but can’t no one seems to get it.”

“So true! And some say ‘we know how hard it is’ but the truth is, they have no idea. Only other survivors parents get the whole picture. I also agree that some ask how everything is out of politeness but don’t even want to listen to what’s going on.”

“Agree or how they think you should put your life on hold. When all you want is a glimpse of happiness and normalcy. There will always be the ones that don’t understand fully or those that will judge every step you take.”

“No, they don’t. I would never wish this life on anyone. People complain about having too much of this or too little of that but they never had to watch their child go through these horrible things. Our children shouldn’t be fighting for their lives when they’re so young and it sucks! I hate this life. I keep saying I need a vacation from my life but then I look at my daughter and I know she can’t take a ‘vacation’ from this so I put one foot in front of the other, smile, and keep fighting! This is our life now, whether you’re just starting out, in the middle, or you’ve been done for years. Our fears are all the same.”

I called the feeling, the fish bowl, when my daughter was diagnosed. I was put in a fish bowl and I was in limbo – and I could see out and everyone could see in but no one wanted to be in the fish bowl with me ( don’t blame them). They were all so busy and the all ran by sooooo fast – some would wave as they wizzed by, others would sit and try and talk through the glass for a while but they couldn’t stay long. I wanted out so bad – but you know what… I still climb back in there from time to time and hide away from the world and it’s now my safe place – no one comes in – I just sit there and watch the world wiz by while I hug my little girl in the stillness – very aware of how blessed I am to know how to stop, slow down and appreciate what’s really important.” (Emphasis mine).

And some still – yes, still! – tell me “don’t write”, you are feeding the anger of people you address. You know what, when I feel less lonely, I write about other things too. Not only cancer, or the gloom and the darkness. And you know what, my writings get gloomier as the day of reckoning approaches. That fateful moment most members of our virtual family do face sooner or later…

 

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I am still alive

He was supposed to come back home for a week; he won’t. He cannot travel.

He is there; I am not. I cannot travel.

He is playing with the red ninja “fire” robot I bought him as a present for his birthday. I was supposed to build it with him. I couldn’t. I was supposed to play with him. I can’t.

I am stuck here. I cannot tell you why yet.

But my friends? Where are they? Why are they not checking up on me? Why are they avoiding my messages? Entertaining doubts about someone they know for at least 7 years – in some cases for over several decades? Did I get leprosy without even realizing it? Am I contagious?

Apparently, I am. But I’ll tell you a secret. I am alive. I will be alive – if only to be able to look at right into their eyes when this is over.

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“I will be the thief”: On privacy and publicness

“Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life”, Gabriel García Márquez

I’ve been meaning to write on questions of “privacy” and “publicness” for some time now. I’ve been told, both by well-meaning friends and not so well-meaning others, that I share too much; I expose a lot and I am exposed a lot; that this is not “appropriate” for an academic of my stature and that this makes me (look) weak and vulnerable.

Now, to begin with, I don’t know what “stature” denotes here for I have never seen a Handbook of Proper Academic Conduct in Public, and I have no idea on what status I have in the eyes of those who know my academic work. I am aware that I have a certain visibility and influence, but this has not been always the case. True, my books and articles were read, mostly by students and colleagues, yet I had no existence outside academia. No Twitter, no Instagram, a rarely used Facebook with a couple of hundred followers. I was rarely on media, and then only to talk about nationalism as “academically” as possible. And I routinely refused to contribute to non-academic platforms simply because I did not have the time.

This has changed almost overnight in May 2013, during the Gezi protests in Turkey. I was already in Sweden; I had recently become a father which has profoundly altered my perspective on life (to be honest, I didn’t think it would, at least not to that extent). In any case, Gezi itself was a life-changing experience, for me and for countless others who happened to be there; so was the ensuing police brutality that left very few untouched – both literally and figuratively.

I have quickly turned into an anti-government activist with thousands of followers on Twitter – the main platform the protestors used to share information. I had already begun contributing more regularly to various digital news portals; so I shifted gears, and rode faster, almost like James Dean on California State Route 46!

This was precisely when well-meaning friends, mostly older and more experienced colleagues, warned me that I was driving too fast, running the risk of crashing the car, well, precisely like James Dean – and damaging whatever reputation I had. They had a point. I didn’t care about my reputation that much, yet I had a family to care for, both in Turkey and Sweden, and receiving dozens of death threats per day was certainly not the best way not to put them in harm’s way. So I slowed down; and I “toned down”. It took a great deal of time and energy, but I did manage it, or so I believed, a view that was not shared by many of my concerned friends.

Then the beast struck. My son. I grew more angry and more frustrated, without knowing how to vent out all these negative feelings. Not so long after, we had to go “public” and launch a fundraiser to continue my son’s treatment in New York. The lines separating the private and the public have become hopelessly blurred, and there were no secrets anymore! Marquez might have been wrong after all…

Years later, here I am, this time with a personal blog where I lay bare whatever is left of my privacy. I have always been an open, outspoken and straightforward person, so the things that I now share are hardly news to anyone who knows me. Those who continue to admonish me are more worried about themselves than my reputation or well-being. They fear I will lift the mask of anonymity and write things that might harm them. They are wrong.

It is true that when I write about, say, love or depression, and my life in general, I feed on the experiences that involved significant others. But, without denying the uniqueness and value of each experience, these others are “interchangeable”. If I talk about, say, love, that is something I felt for several people, in myriad ways. When I write about depression, I don’t write “only” about the present but also about the past and, yes, the future (i.e. what will I do, how will I feel if something happens to “Him”). On the rare occasions I mention names and refer to specific events, I get the consent of those involved. Otherwise, I write about myself, my feelings, my anxieties, concerns, fears, failures, frustrations… If others recognize themselves in things that I write, then they must know that they are not the only ones who do so.

And I know that what I write helps or touches a string in a “very limited” amount of people.

Take this from someone I don’t know at all: “All the support and love from Beirut! What you do for your son is worthy of admiration and your writings on the current situation and what is happening has been the most interesting and informative.”

Or this from a senior colleague whose work I admire and follow religiously, but never met in person: “Dear Umut, my eyes welled up with tears reading such honest and (therefore) powerful words! On a gloomy-dark-cold Virginia morning! I 100% agree with your sense of void/meaninglessness attached to academic work regarding anything much but especially this rotten-to-the-core TC!!! Last night I watched Darkest Hour. Want to share one of Churchill’s pearls of wisdom: success is not final, failure is not fatal … Please take care of yourself, feeling good or depressed. What you write in this blog smells you. Very honest. With lots of love.”

And a very dear friend who doesn’t have any social media accounts, who prefers to avoid publicness at all costs: “I wasn’t aware of this blog. What a good idea … Please do write. People say all sorts of things. What matters is it makes you feel better and you feel like doing it … Writing is therapeutical.”

My friend is right. I have started this blog because I was feeling lonely (a subjective loneliness to be sure, since I am surrounded by people who love me); and I still do. I am writing this post in the plane from Barcelona to Copenhagen, so basically I am going “home”. But home does not feel like home anymore. I have a fist in my stomach; dark clouds are gathering over my head even though I can see the sun shining outside, over an endless bed of clouds.

I had promised you that I won’t resort to academic gibberish in this blog. I am not going to bore you with such fancy “po-mo” stuff as “If social mediation blurs boundaries and pushes mutual redefinition between public and private, it also calls for rethinking the relationship between “audiences” and “publics” (Baym and Boyd 2012; https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2012.705200).

Instead, I will reiterate what Jean Genet who wrote in The Thief’s Journal (in Sartre’s rendering), “You call me thief when it is already to late to refuse that title. It’s no problem, I will be the Thief”.

You call me an outspoken human being with no sense of privacy? “It’s no problem”, I’ll take it.

 

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