Layla-Saad

“The giving season is over”

Flipping around the car radio,
these five words caught my ear.
I’d like to think there was more to it,
we’re not always privy to context.
Benefit of the doubt says
sometimes we’re moving too fast
to hear the rest, missing the crucial
thing that was said just after,
not seeing how it turned out,
that sad phrase, that tense moment,
that terse exchange you glimpsed
in passing.

But benefit of the doubt is tired.
It’s so tired. It’s tired and it’s pissed
that we’re living in a time and place
where context is too smart
for the powers that be, where
to listen deeply is laughable,
something only elitists do,
where our so-called president
calls Haiti and the entire African continent
“shithole countries,” suggesting we open
our doors to more Norwegians instead.
American, Aryan — splitting blonde hairs
of wholesome, pure specimens of superiority.

The giving season is over.
There is only taking now.
Taking land, taking language, taking health
care, taking names, taking neighborhoods,
taking schools, taking deep breaths
to keep ourselves sane while they take
and take take take, taking turns
with shallow apologies, taking families,
taking compassion, taking humanity,
taking intelligence, taking diplomacy,
taking kindness, taking depth, taking
whatever they want, like they always have,
and spitting in the faces
of anyone who doesn’t look like them
or come when they call.

Angry? Yes. I’m angry.
Am I frightened? Beneath everything, yes.
The giving season is over —
I heard it myself today on the radio.
My own dark curls and speckled eyes
don’t fit the profile, though I can hide
behind my rosy cheeks and pale skin.
Mind goes to trains, ships, all the methods
of death transport by the millions.
Bodies that don’t conform, minds that don’t
conform, families that don’t conform,
art that doesn’t conform, leaders
who come in so many forms confronting
daily a thousand small atrocities adding
up to something like genocide,
something like ethnic cleansing,
something like eugenics, something like
the most sinister tactics of decimation
history has seen.

Here we are again, in this place where
the giving season buckles under the weight
of so much taking.
I want to say: Rest, let me carry something
of yours here, let me take your weight
for a moment, don’t let them break you.
Instead, I wonder how long I can hold on
before the ugliness starts to ruin me.
I say I won’t let that happen.
And I wonder if it’s true.

Layla-Saad

All Hands on Deck

Photo: Stijn Stinnen

Oh tender heart for all who weep
and angry heart for those unseen
I dreamed about original wounds
and something healing came in the form of writing
Details elude me but I woke knowing something
had occurred, something in sleep needed heeding

Calling in the red hot and the true blue
calling in the close calls and the collision courses
calling in the blind eyes and the willful deniers
calling in you who would look away
and you who risk everything to offer sanctuary

The question isn’t when did discrimination become
the basis for policy making
but when was it ever not this way
and how can we claim progress when our bodies
are on the chopping block and our minds
are being held for ransom and we move from
one news cycle to the next
six seconds per person
forgetting last week’s outrage because this week’s is worse
how can that be
and how can we breathe
when there isn’t even time to pause and grieve?

Gone are the days of the 6:30 news when I was a kid
and my parents would spend 30 minutes in the TV room
listening to those soothing, familiar anchors
but whose news made the cut? What looked like unity
was not a lack of divisiveness but a lack of representation

We need to be talking, yes.
We need to be talking in person, in living rooms
in places of worship in the grocery store
in cafés and in the classroom
in the lakes and rivers diverted for dollars
in the casinos and dance halls and movie theaters
on buses and in gated communities on farms
and on city councils and in the halls of justice
where justice is in a chokehold while we look on
feeling helpless

To succumb to helpless paralysis cannot be the way
forward
though in this chaos I have little to offer
and it’s easy to feel small, frozen, flinching.
Do something do anything
Attend a meeting, make a call, talk to a neighbor,
broach the uncomfortable, pick up the phone, write a letter
read a book, challenge yourself
name the elephants in the room

As a teenager “keep your laws off my body” was
emblazoned
on the back of my closed bedroom door
bumperstickers, angsty emotional outrage
grown now into womanhood
maybe my teeth have gotten sharper
maybe my tolerance is done tolerating
settling for scraps and glass ceiling shards

Maybe I’m regressing before my very eyes
back to my roots
back to my original wound
the one I dreamed of healing by writing
the words flow like so much blood
and the stench is always somewhere else
and the hungry children are always somewhere else
and the oppression is always worse
for someone else

I must make it mine
take it all the way into my own body
knowing that these conditions render me, too
not free
me too, not at ease
me too, threatened
not too much
not going gently
or without a fight

taking all of this wholeness and all of the broken bits
and rather than flinging them haphazardly
and adding to the harm done
gathering, calling them in
calling myself home again
to really listen
for who to be
because the only thing
the ONLY thing I know for sure
is that this is all hands on deck time
and we can’t sit down
while the laws are quietly made
and trains roll steadily in

Layla-Saad

The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.

Layla-Saad

Poetry, Politics, and Privilege

I feel unequipped to write about politics.

But yesterday, I posted the following on Facebook:

Do you ever have to suppress the urge to ask someone if they voted for Trump? But a) it’s impolite and b) it’s none of my business and c) I don’t really want to know. Oy.

A thread of comments followed. Some were thoughtful and others flippant, but I appreciated the conversation, however dispiriting is may have been. At one point, I mused:

The more comments I read, the more I think, why bother knowing. I think the folks I wonder about most likely DID vote for him. And the fact is, I have not had a single productive conversation with a Trump voter since the election. I truly wonder if it’s possible.

In the midst of that online conversation, one Facebook friend messaged me that she’d lost a life-long friend because of their political differences. Another sent me a photo of the stop sign at the end of her street, with a swastika spray painted on it. She had just called the sheriff’s office. “I don’t trust any of them,” she wrote.

Today, I received another private message, from someone I don’t know well. This person, who has never commented on my writing before, wrote:

i’m a little surprised at your comments in the post that you made on trump at midnight last night. I’m a libertarian but I really try to understand both sides. Both sides have valid concerns. I’m surprised as a poet and writer that you wouldn’t dig a little deeper and try to understand what a huge chunk of this country is feeling right now. I don’t mean the fringe that both parties have at their edges. I mean what is underneath the support. There is both fear and idealism underneath both parties platforms. For you to give up kind of shocked me. Clearly your newsfeed reaches only those with a homogeneous view.

I was triggered by this, but also know enough about social media to recognize that it could very well have been written in good faith. It can be so hard to read tone, especially when you’ve had no other contact with someone. After several hours of consideration, I responded:

Your note gave me a lot to consider, and in fact, I am writing a blog post now exploring this further — so thank you. Nowhere did I say I was giving up, nor do I see it as my responsibility to welcome everyone’s view on my personal FB page.  

Sure enough, he responded that he meant no harm.

Today, I was in the dentist’s office.

I was making the kids’ six-month cleaning appointments. And the four women working at the reception desk behind the sliding glass windows were all lovely and kind and helpful. One of them, followed by two others, complimented my dress — the dress both kids poo-poohed earlier in the parking lot. We laughed about that. We wished each other a good weekend.

 Did they vote for Trump? They might have voted for Trump. If they did, are they pleased with how things are going? If they regret it now, what does that mean? Now what? Are they speaking out, talking to their friends and family?
 
I wanted to ask them. I don’t know what would happen if I did. If they said yes, would the be less lovely, kind, and helpful? What would change in that moment? Would I start ranting in the waiting room? Doubtful.
 
I suppose I would ask why. I want to believe this is possible, this seeing each other. This listening. But — and there is the “but.”
 
What about the xenophobic, misogynistic, embarrassing, homophobic, racist, tweeting, dangerous, isolationist, sociopathic, narcissistic, manipulative, unrelenting greed and ignorant dismantling of democratic ideals?
 
How does one reconcile overlooking or approving these? I don’t know if I can, friends. I just don’t know.
 
But I didn’t ask. It’s not done, right? And this is how we go through the days.
 
Who are we?
 

Here’s what I mean by unequipped.

Writing about this feels nearly impossible. But that is a cop-out. We can’t leave this kind of wrestling to the pundits and the experts. We all have bodies. We all need air and water and food that’s not poisoned and health insurance and safety and education and legal protection. And by all, I do mean ALL. 

This is where I have such a difficult time staying open, since a vote for Trump essentially said, no, not all. Just some of us.
 
I am neither a journalist nor a spokesperson for anything. I am a mother and a poet. I am Jewish and queer. I am white and was born to parents with higher degrees and the means to provide me and my sisters with private education.
 
Truth be told, I generally interact with very few people whose political and moral beliefs vary dramatically from my own. When a woman in one of my writing groups shared that she had voted for Trump — the week of the election — I tried to create space for her writing, only to be personally attacked. In a word: It sucked. 
 

Is it my job as a poet not to have strong opinions?

Is it my job as a woman to be a nice hostess and make sure everyone is comfortable? Not everyone is going to be comfortable. God knows I’m not comfortable speaking up in this way when in fact I shy away from confrontation, suck at debate, and generally love it when everyone’s getting along. This is not my forte, people. 

And yet here I am, writing. I am writing because this is such sticky and difficult terrain, and we are all walking on the same ground — which is crazy, given how little ground we seem to share within these borders. I am writing, because I fear for my children’s future, and for the children who are learning from their teachers, parents, siblings, peers, and role models in office that bullying and hatred are American values. I am writing, because climate change is accelerating and we’re the frogs in the pot and our president just nominated a climate change skeptic to USDA’s top science post.

I am writing because I care so fucking much.

I have no answers.

I am a bundle of fear and rage and love and confusion. I went for a run this morning, and I looked at each person’s face I passed by. A delivery guy. An older gentleman walking his dog. A woman with a briefcase waiting for the light. A man smoking a cigarette on a bench. A child watching in awe as the firetruck backed out of the station, holding his grandfather’s hand. I ached.

What do we do with the ache, with the love, with the rage, with the fear?

How do we listen?

Layla-Saad

My America

Photo: Kayle Kaupanger

To all of my friends across the globe, to the north and the south. To the east and west: This is not the America I represent. My America has open arms, minds, and hearts. My America says, come in, how can I help? My America insists on justice for all and the beauty of truth. My America takes responsibility for its hypocrisy and sets about making things right. My America is accountable for so much death and destruction. My America makes amends. My America says I’m so sorry. My America says, we were wrong. My America says, here, let’s unmask the myths of opportunity and put all that love of money where our hungry mouths are. America, my America, says, we didn’t think of it first, or even second or third. My America says, let me redistribute, give you back your rivers and farms. My America says, I am a bully. I am an abuser. I am an addict. I am a victim. I am I am I am I am. My America says, it has been about me for too long. My America says, how are you? I’m listening. My America says, I was a kleptomaniacal sales rep thug wearing a nice suit. My America says, I’m checking myself into rehab. My America says, your body is not an abomination. My America says, all languages spoken here, translators will be provided free of charge. My America says, I am handing over the mic. My America says, you’ve heard enough from me. My America says, women always seem to come up with the best solutions. My America says, queer bodies deserve safety, black and brown bodies deserve safety, undocumented bodies deserve safety, children’s bodies deserve safety. My America says, I have been so arrogant. My America says, enough. Enough. Enough.