To be true to yourself

“They’ve done a documentary about Chavela,” said my friend. We were both in love with Chavela Vargas (http://www.chavelavargasfilm.com/ ). La Llorana, Soledad were already an important part of our personal history, dotted by irregular visits, each marked by a particular theme, a verse, a song. So was Chavela.

And we had our famous conversations, or more precisely, her “interventions”. My friend, who has known me for 24 years, would begin with a situation analysis, comment on my problems and the way I experienced them and offer her suggestions without pulling any punches – she didn’t need to as we were so close to each other.

I shouldn’t be using the past tense however, for the tradition lives on. This time, too, we had an intervention, as always out of the blue, without any premonition.

She was Luca Can’s godmother in many ways, but she didn’t have a chance to meet him. That was also why she was among the very few I called when we found out that Luca was about to embark on a new journey. “You have to meet him,” I said. “I have to have memories with him,” she replied. She came to visit him for one day.

Luca was not the most sociable of kids of his age, but he had a tendency to pick out people who are special to mamma or baba so he treated her very warmly. He needed to lie down when he felt tired. He could not see her from where he lied, and asked, a few times, “baba, where is she?”. He shared his Lego with her. He wouldn’t share them even with his friends most of the time.

That one day passed by. Memories were collected, to the extent that one could in one day. Then other days have passed by. I couldn’t stay there any longer, so I came here. And the moment of reckoning I alluded to above has come.

My friend lit a cigarette and began her intervention. “When I came there to visit him, I was not only collecting memories, I was observing you too,” she said. “You weren’t only his father, at the same time, you were his big brother. You turned into a kid with him. Even your moves were synchronised,” she continued.

“Now, you have two choices. Either you see yourself as a victim and blame life, fate, whatever for what’s happened to you or you follow in his footsteps by remembering his passion for life, his joie de vivre that he didn’t give up until the last moment.”

I thought about this all day long. As soon as I went back home, I started looking for the documentary on Chavela. I wanted to watch it together with her – without knowing that we were going to go through “an experience” overlapping so much with what we talked about before.

The documentary kicks off with an interview made with Chavela in 1991 when she was 71-years-old. “Let’s start with where I am going. At my age, it’s more interesting for everyone to ask where I’m going, not where I’ve been,” she said.

This amazing documentary by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi blew off the dust of so many of our existential problems about love, life, and death for 90 minutes. We laughed, but mostly we cried. We were spellbound. When the “experience” was over, we had no strength to leave the couch.

Then I thought, why am I writing this? Why am I sharing what I have been going through with everyone? In the end, no matter what I do, I will be the one suffering. No one – or nothing – else could alleviate that pain. I won’t probably be able to find the proper words to express my suffering.

On the other hand, I don’t know what else I can do. I am not able to do anything other than write (even writing was alien to me for two months, longer than any time in my life); and when I sit down in front of the computer, I cannot write about anything else. In the documentary, Chavela said: “I offer my pain to people who come to see me. And it’s beautiful.”

I don’t know whether it is beautiful. I don’t know whether it’s right thing to do. Some suffer silently, in private only. I cannot live like that.

While I was thinking about all this, a message came from another friend: “I opened the window. It rained a little. It felt slightly cooler. Fresh air filled the room. Umut, if we manage to live, life is beautiful indeed. And I think, we can manage to live.”

I think so too. I just don’t know how to manage. But we should live, I guess. I should live.

* First published in Ahval News, https://ahvalnews.com/turkey/be-true-yourself

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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 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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“I feel no grief for being called something which I am not”

They say: Why do you write?

I say: It makes me feel better.

They say: Fine, but isn’t this your job, writing?

I say: Not anymore. I don’t enjoy writing for work. I don’t like my work. Writing books no one will ever read; writing articles no one will even hear of; writing opinion pieces that will be heard of and read but won’t change a single thing… It’s all a sham, a huge waste of time. We are puppets in a big, expensive production. The script is already written; the main actors and actresses are already chosen. They will be the ones who will get a standing ovation if they act according to the script. We, the puppets, are just there to watch the script unfold. We are lucky to be paid for it. At least we make a living!

They say: So the things you write on your blog… Do you think people read them? Do they care? Why should they be interested in your disoriented, chaotic and mostly gloomy musings?

I say: But I don’t write for them, I told you. I write for myself.

They say: Then why do you share them publicly? Aren’t you exposed this way?

I say: Perhaps. Still, I have nothing to hide.

They say: Come on! Did you ever think that sharing all this personal stuff could make you look weak? Give the wrong messages to the wrong people?

I say: No, I don’t think so. Why would sharing anecdotes or parables from my life make me look weak? We share them with our friends, our colleagues, people we love or fall in love with, and most of these people were perfect strangers at the beginning. We became friends, lovers, because we share our life with them, as honestly as one possible can. Those who accept us as we are stay in our life one way or another. Those who do not just leave or we don’t want them. As for messages, subliminal or not… Who cares? Can we change the way people see us, talk about us? No matter what we do, they will have their own opinions – even judgements – and they will stick to these unless they themselves change their mind. Nothing we do, or say, or write will change their perceptions of us. Even if it did, this shouldn’t be the purpose of writing, of sharing. One should write for oneself. And if I feel like sharing what I write (and believe me, there are hundreds of pages I keep to myself), I do so without thinking of the implications. I don’t care of the implications, because I know that I cannot affect them.

Do you know what would Bukowski say in reply to this?

“I feel no grief for being called something which I am not; in fact, it’s enthralling, somehow, like a good back rub.”

I write. I share. If I get a response, of whatever kind, I am happy. If I get an insult or warning, I shrug my shoulders and smile. And if I am called something which I am not, I simply enjoy the back rub.

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The void

“My heart is void.” For some time, I thought it wasn’t. I thought I found true love – the meaning of life some say. I felt I belonged. The love had a name. His name was Luca.

My love was unlucky. A rare disease found him. He was only 11 months old. He fought bravely for 3.5 years. The beast was strong; he was stronger. There were times the doctors lost their hope. There were times everybody lost their hope. He has proven them wrong. For how long, we don’t know. But right now, he is a happy, healthy boy.

I am not. Therapists call this “compassion fatigue” or “burnout”. I need to stay afloat; I need to heal. And the only way to heal, at least for me, is to write. Not useless academic crap. Not equally useless repetitive op-eds. Just write. About Luca, about his struggle, about our struggle… About life and most of all, my life.

Why share? Because I have never written for myself only. And maybe, maybe there will be things in our story that others facing a similar fate would find useful.

That’s all really.

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