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

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

Donald Trump Takes on Valentine’s Day

Roses are red
Violets are blue
If you’re mean to me
I’ll be mean to you

— DT, Age 4 70

This is actually kind of fun. Come on, Steve. Let’s make nice and write Valentines for everyone this year. Just not for that b*#ch Liz. She was warned.

*

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Rhyming is harder than it looks
So unfair

Roses are red
Violets are blue
I grow the best ones
You should see them

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Blue looks good on me
Brings out my eyes

Roses are blue
Violets are red
Just ask the ten million people
who were at my inauguration

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Poetry is dead
And we’ll kill democracy, too

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Don’t shop at Nordstrom
They are so misguided

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Have you seen my hands?
Tremendous

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Compare me to Hitler
That makes me swoon

Roses are red
Violets are blue
The media lies
We tell alt-truths

Roses are red
Violets are blue
I won fair and square
It was a landslide

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Melania, smile!
Pretend I love you

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Get out of my way
You whiny libtard

Roses are red
Violets are blue
I still can’t get this right
Disaster

Roses are red
Violets are blue
I have a mad crush on Bannon
Don’t tell him I told you

Roses are red
Violets are blue
The Jews took my money
Criminal, just disgraceful

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Get me a photo op
with Harriet Tubman

Roses are red
Violets are blue
They say I am toxic
They should try the Flint water

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Hey I’m a natural
The new poet laureate

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Trust me, ladies
Every word of it’s true

Roses are red
Violets of blue
I’m closing our borders
Bad hombre rhymes with border, right?
Close enough

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sure, you can see my tax return…
In your dreams, moron

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Valentine’s day is for sore losers
SAD

Layla-Saad

Not for the Faint of Heart

exlq3elikm8-annie-sprattDo you ever use the expression “not for the faint of heart”?

Love’s not for the faint of heart. Writing’s not for the faint of heart. Politics aren’t for the faint of heart. Self-employment? Definitely not for the faint of heart. Raising kids? You guessed it. Marriage isn’t for the faint of heart. Revolution is most certainly not for the faint of heart. Anything requiring discipline, from training for a marathon to working on a manuscript? Not for the faint of heart. Working more than one job? You’re getting the idea.

In other words, Reality is not for the faint of heart. Life is not for the faint of heart.

To leave it at that, though, strikes me as woefully insufficient.

What the hell is for the faint of heart, then? Anything and everything? That doesn’t ring true, either. Too simplistic, too broad of a stroke.

“Not for the faint of heart” carries a vague implication that whatever the thing is, it’s a choice. Something you might want to think twice or five times about before getting yourself in too deep, or into at all.

This is premised on a degree of privilege that is simply not shared by all people. Living paycheck to paycheck is not for the faint of heart, nor do I know many people who “choose” this, as if it’s a lifestyle. Poverty is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also not exactly something anyone signs up for.

Being transgender is not for the faint of heart. Same could be said of being a person of color. These are not choices a person makes, though they may in fact determine a great deal about how an individual is perceived, judged, and treated.

Do circumstances, character, or a combination thereof determine whether a person is “faint of heart”? And what is its opposite? “Courageous” of heart?

Consider this: The notion of “courage” means very different things to different people.

If you are perceived as “marginal” when seen through the lenses of dominant cultural norms (read: white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle class), being “courageous” might look like doing your day — going to work, sending your kids to school on the bus, picking up some groceries, walking the dog in the park.

These everyday and seemingly mundane and “safe” activities become something that is — wait for it — not for the faint of heart. Getting up in the morning, putting on a brave face for small people or a poker face for a harsh world — every single day is a series of moments that are implicitly not for the faint of heart.

Acknowledging this places things like the choice to be self-employed, or the inevitable ups and downs of intimacy in a culturally sanctioned relationship, for example, in a different light. It’s not that the challenges of these aren’t valid. It’s just that I’m becoming more aware of how language reflects privilege or lack thereof — be it based on race, sexual orientation, gender expression, class, ability, or one of the countless ways in which these intersect and to a large degree determine how the world sees and treats us.

It’s true for me, that not having a steady paycheck is not for the faint of heart. It requires tremendous reserves (which sometimes I have to dig deep to tap) of trust. But I also live with an incredibly privileged assumption, which is that I *could* start looking for and applying for jobs. There’s no guarantee whatsoever I’d land a good one that could support my family, but I have the education, resume, and references that no matter how you cut it reflect a great deal of privilege.

Putting myself out there — on a blog, on Facebook, as a writer, as a coach, as a group leader — these are not for the faint of heart. I regularly find myself “outside of my comfort zone,” and at this point it’s a combination of choice and necessity that I keep on.

The stakes are plenty high on the one hand (groceries, yo). On the other hand, we are not digging for pennies in between couch cushions (though Mani has lived this), nor are we one month away from eviction if things get slow; we’d have two at least, and the truth is I have good credit and that’s also a privilege.

More things that aren’t for the faint of heart: Honesty about privilege. Writing what’s real instead of worrying about what’s “trending” (ugh) is not for the faint of heart. Asking for help, receiving, paying attention to what you truly want and need. In pointing out these areas of privilege, my intention is not to shame (myself or others) but to NAME things that are true.

I was born into an upwardly mobile, white, Jewish, artistic, academic family. That was not a choice. But what I DO with this privilege, how it shapes my actions and values, work, parenting, and writing — this is a choice. We do not need more white guilt or fragility or hand-wringing, but responsibility. And guess what? (I bet you guessed it already.) Taking responsibility is NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.

By writing and sharing the way I do, I am putting my heart in your hands. Not literally, of course, but that is how it feels some days, to show up and figure out how to convey in language these things that I think about. My hope is that this is not so much naval-gazing but something of use, something that might get you seeing your own places of not being faint of heart, in new ways.

Last night, lying in bed watching “Luke Cage,” I mentioned to Mani that this idea of “not for the faint of heart” was on my mind. “Isn’t everyone ‘not faint of heart’?” I asked her, thinking of the quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” She responded without a blink: “I think plenty of people are faint of heart.”

What immediately came to mind were images of everyday German citizens who became an army of people “just following orders.” To me, that is the full expression of being faint of heart: Being unwilling or afraid to speak up in the face of injustice, ineptitude, and horrifying denigration of human rights.

In riffing on President-Elect Trump’s choices so far for his highest-ranking cabinet members, Trevor Noah on The Daily Show said: “It’s almost like before Trump hires anyone, he googles ‘opposite of’ and then just gets that person,” Noah suggested. This kind of “comedy” is not for the faint of heart.

My respect for anyone and everyone who continues to speak up, fight, write, joke, petition, organize, create, and teach in ways that refuse to be silenced by the incoming administration grows by the minute. Today, tomorrow, next week — again, Noah said it best: ““What makes it worse than a roller coaster is that this ride is going to be four years long. And the scariest thing is, we’re still just waiting in the line. The ride hasn’t even started yet!”

Truth.

This is not the time to be faint of heart. Get strong, people. In whatever ways you can. If you, like me, come from a place of relative privilege, this is going to mean being uncomfortable, doing it anyway, and remembering that it’s not about you. It’s about doing the right thing, and the next right thing, and when you’re not sure what that is, not being faint of heart but instead asking people who do know. It’s about taking rest, yes, when you need to, but also recognizing that there’s a difference between self-care and self-check-out.

These times, this world, oh. It really isn’t for the faint of heart. I want with everything I am to believe that we’re in it together — and also see all the ways in which this is so clearly not true and never has been. The least we, I, can do, is to stand on the right side of history as it continues to unfold, so that one day, God willing, when my kids’ kids ask me what I did to stop this inexorable tide towards world destruction, I will be able to say I tried.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

Layla-Saad

5/30 Poems in November: Will We Stay?

questions“What are we going to do if he wins?”
“Will we stay here?”
“Dada said he’d move to New Zealand if you would go.”
“You said you’d leave the country if Dada would.”
“I have a friend on the west coast of Canada.”
“Can we move there?”
“But what about our stuff?”
“What about my best friend?”
“Would we be poor?”
“How would you get a green card?”
“Would your marriage still be legal?”
“Dada would have to find a new job.”
“Could you still do your work in another country?”
“Can we move to Amsterdam? Amsterdam is lit.”
“Wait, only one suitcase?”
“So we would just sleep on the floor?”
“This is the first year I’ve ever cared about politics.”
“What will we do if he wins?”

The images come flooding the empty plain 
of my lack of good — or any — answers: 
You, my child, with the blond hair and blues eyes. 
You could pass. You could lie about your mother line. 
But you will always be mine. 
You will always be mine.

5/30

**

30 Poems in November! is a literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans. Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. For more information, please visit cnam.org This year, we aim to raise $30,000. Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

Some of the most meaningful work I’ve ever done was in my early 20s at the Riverside Church in NYC, leading English-language conversations with new Americans from countries all over the world. It was then that I was privileged to witness the courage, resilience, patience, and grit that immigrants and refugees must have in order to navigate life in a new language and culture.

Since poetry is one of the way I practice showing up in the world, for the month of November, I vow to write one poem a day as a small gesture of respect for and in solidarity with those who land in the Pioneer Valley as new Americans. Your donation will spur me on and, more importantly, support the newest members of our community.

Make your donation here, and read the #30poemsinnovember I’ve written so far here.