Living Through a Heat Wave

Let me preface this by saying: I am not someone who enjoys the summer.  Sure, having a break from school is great.  Ice cream is tasty.  Sangria is to-die-for.  But of all the seasons, summer has to be my least favorite.  This has been true ever since I can remember.  For example, I distinctly remember the last day of third grade, packing up my desk in Mrs. White’s classroom and weeping because the school year was over and I just didn’t know what to do with myself.  Two years later, I had a mini-existential crisis as fifth grade came to a close and I convinced myself that this meant “saying goodbye to my childhood.”  In high school, things were looking up.  I busied myself with dance classes and camping trips with my best friends, learned how to bake bread and sew, and became a thoroughly skilled domesticated feminist.  But even that couldn’t save me.  

There was just something about the sun that I couldn’t handle.  I felt stuck in my house, like the world was against me.  When I went outside, I felt like my whole body was under siege.  I felt how weak it was, how susceptible to the elements, how fragile.

In France, they call this kind of heat la canicule.  I remember the first time I ever came across this word.  I was in a translation class my sophomore year of college, and I needed to find a poem to translate for my final project.  Late one night I sat in the empty common room of my dorm, flipping through an anthology of Algerian poetry.  I came upon a short poem by Malek Alloula, a native Algerian poet who had been living in exile in France for most of his life.  Something about the poem struck me, and I tried my hand at a translation.

poem 3The translation was clumsy and inaccurate, especially my rendition of la canicule.  What I loved about this word was that it sounded to me like “canopy”.  I could picture the heat hanging over the city like a large piece of suffocating cloth.  A force that lorded over you, drying you up like a relic of petrified wood.  Of course, the speaker’s primary concern in this poem is not the literal heat of summer.  Instead, he uses the heat (and the “sarcasms of winter”) as a metaphor for the intensity of war—the way it cuts off the past, breaks lineage, destroys families.

And then there’s Albert Camus, probably the most well-known French author to write about la canicule.  You could say that Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, is more than a little bit obsessed with the heat of the sun.  As he follows his mother’s funeral procession, a nurse gives him some sage advice: “She said, ‘If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.’ She was right. There was no way out.”

If we look more closely at la canicule, we begin to see that it really does bring out the worst in people. For Camus’ Meursault, it’s cold-blooded murder.  For the speaker in Alloula’s poem, it’s colonial violence and civil war. Outside of the realms of fiction and poetry, the effects of the heat are no less severe.  In August of 2003, over 15,000 people died in the span of one month during a deadly heat wave in metropolitan France.

So what do these three incidents have in common, besides being related to France?  In all three cases, the fatal effects of the heat (whether direct or circumstantial) disproportionately targeted marginalized populations.  In The Stranger, Meursault (a white man of French origin) shoots an an unnamed “Arab” to death on an Algerian beach.  In Alloula’s poem, he alludes to the Algerian War, fought between 1954 and 1962, which scholars estimate to have resulted in the deaths of nearly 1 million native Algerians.  During the heat wave of 2003, the vast majority of heat-related deaths affected France’s most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, the homeless, and those living in poverty.  

This summer, the heat has intensified.  Violent act after violent act, senseless death after senseless death.  And not surprisingly, this violence takes a disproportionate toll on marginalized populations: people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, trans women, people living at the intersections of these and other identities.  As news broke of the shooting in Orlando, and of the murders of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, I felt as though as though mass shootings and police brutality were increasing at a dizzying rate, rushing towards some kind of horrific climax.  

Crime rates have evolved and changed over the past fifty years in complicated ways, just like the weather.  Hot summers, cold winters, unexpected floods.  One hot day in the middle of April is probably not going to hurt anyone.  Three hot days in May might be a bit of a bother.  It’s when the hottest days pile one on top of the other, day after day, that you enter la canicule.  

What’s different about this summer is not that the heat is any hotter, it’s that we’ve had to live through so much of it in such a short span of time.  We’ve reached a threshold, a tipping point between passively waiting for the heat to pass, and actively working to alleviate its deadly effects.  Many of us reached this threshold long ago.  As a white American, the seemingly sudden horror I felt this summer after the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling showed me just how passive I had been about the deaths that have been happening for years, for decades, for centuries.  It was as though I had been sitting in an air-conditioned penthouse, and somebody broke the window to let in the ferocious heat that had always been outside.

The violence of this summer, like the heat of the sun, cannot be solved by short-term solutions alone.  Refusing to leave the house, to walk around in public places, to drive your car—in the long run, these changes are not sustainable.  They fix nothing.  Just look at climate change: inventing better sunscreen won’t fix a hole in the ozone layer.  So why do we think that carrying more guns will fix the epidemic of violence that is taking over our country?

As we work towards long-term systemic solutions to this epidemic, we must also deal with the fact that we are still in the heat of the fire. We are still in la canicule.

But here’s the thing about a heat wave: it doesn’t have to kill. One of the primary reasons why so many elderly, impoverished, and homeless French citizens died in the 2003 heat wave was because they did not receive the care they needed. Many died alone in their apartments, when all that was needed was for a neighbor to walk up the stairs with a cold washcloth and a bottle of water, and make sure their neighbor was okay.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the long-term solutions to the problems we face are… well, long-term.  In the short-term, we need to take care of ourselves and of each other.  Allies need to step up and start carrying water, providing support, checking in on the ones they love. The heat does not affect everyone in an equal manner.  The death of yet another person of color in our country at the hands of police will break some, and pass over the heads of others. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how immediately you feel affected by this violence.  It is your job, it is my job, it is our job, to support and care for anyone who is.  It is our job to go into the heat that some of us can’t escape, and do what we can to keep each other safe.

Further reading:

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. 1946.

Kaouah, Abdelmadjid, ed. Poésie Algérienne Francophone Contemporaine. Autre Temps: 2004.

Keller, Richard C. Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003University of Chicago Press: 2015.

Gladwell, Malcolm.  “Why mass shootings, like Orlando’s club attack, keep happening.” CNBC: June 14, 2016.

 

 

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To be happy

It’s noon on a Monday. I’m in my quiet Paris apartment, sprawled out on my belly in the first queen bed I’ve ever called my own. It’s cloudy again, like it has been almost every day since I arrived. I slept in until 11 this morning, because there was really no good reason not to. I made the poor decision of flipping onto my belly around 10, which always gives me confusing dreams about people I would rather not dream about. But when I awoke, there was hot coffee, and the breeze coming in through my window, and a stack of good books to get me through the morning.

So, life is pretty damn good. Like, maybe the best. For the first time in a long time, I have been able to do all the things I love most—writing, cooking, walking, spending quality time with friends—without feeling like I have to sacrifice any one of those things for another. For the first time since I got my heart broken one year ago, I feel like I can actually be happy—simple, carefree happiness, the kind where you sit around for hours laughing and dancing and you never have to leave the room to cry because you’re so painfully aware of how fleeting it all is. Today, it doesn’t feel fleeting, though of course it is. Today happiness is forgetting. Forgetting that happiness could ever end in pain. Forgetting that people leave you, and that you leave people, and that we all leave each other in the end. Forgetting the space between numbers on the clock and the way it goes on ticking. Forgetting that it ticks at all.

Friends, I am telling you all of this because one year ago today was the worst night of my life. It’s a night I have never really told anyone about, a night that only one person in the whole world is able to testify to, someone I no longer talk to and who I still miss like hell. It’s a night I can’t even talk to myself about most days, or my therapist, or my best friend. It was the night when something very deep and essential broke in me, and I saw the thin veil spread over everything I loved, and how quickly it could be pulled away to reveal darkness, nothingness, disappearance. An endless and dizzying abyss.

One year ago today, I literally did not know how I could go on living. Today, I am alive.

To anyone who has ever seen the darkness you think no one else can see, I am with you. I want you to know that you can never unsee what you have seen. But I also want you to know that with time, you can learn, you can choose to forget. Not forever, and not completely, but enough to go on living, and find your way to happiness again.

Today I am proud of the work I have done to take care of myself in the wake of that worst night. Today I am profoundly grateful to the people who hugged me, and cried with me, and made me laugh, and made me coffee. Today I am grateful for my family, those who raised me and those who chose me. Today I am grateful for a room to call my own, and a fridge full of food, and the knowledge that none of this will disappear by sundown.

Today, I am happy.

How to Write a Manifesto

Two years ago this March, my best friend and I wrote a manifesto.

It was a brisk spring day in Paris, and we were sitting on the banks of the Seine, equipped with a bottle of cheap rosé, a box of Prince cookies, and a Moleskine notebook.

It was sunset.  Of course it was sunset.  Who writes a manifesto at any other time of day but sunset?

Yes, it was just as picturesque as you might imagine.  The light was orange and pink over the water.  The street lamps of Paris were beginning to light up, one by one, across the city.  

It was perfect, okay?  No need to wax poetic (for once).

We were half a bottle in when the writing began.  I wrote the first sentence, she the second, I the third… and we went on like this for what seemed like hours, passing the notebook silently back and forth, taking sips of wine and watching boats pass on the quiet water.

To understand why, on that particular evening, we had decided to write a manifesto, it is important for you to know a few things:

  1. I had just turned 21: a ripe, rebellious age.
  2. My best friend had been living alone in a small chambre de bonne in Paris for almost two months: plenty of time to ponder existence.
  3. I had just fallen in love with a girl for the first time: love makes you do crazy things.
  4. Wine is cheap in Paris: cheap wine makes you want to write.

So there we are, about to pen the last sentence of our manifesto (switching off every other word now, just to make it extra special), and we see a boat coming towards us on the water.  A man screams at us, waving his hands, but we have no idea what he’s saying.

WHOOSH.

In the boat’s wake, a wall of water surges towards us.  Remember, we are drunk: slow reaction time.  The wave climbs up the concrete wall, splashes over our feet and legs, soaks the notebook, and carries the empty bottle away—not the first or last to be lost in that river.

But the manifesto, that we managed to save.  We could hardly complain.  A manifesto baptized in the waters of the Seine?  The stuff of legend.

In the months to follow, I would repeat this story to my friends, adding certain details, and taking others away.  “Ah, to be young in Paris,” I would conclude, eyes looking dramatically off into the distance.

But the truth is, it wasn’t just the wine, or the sunset, or even Paris that inspired us to write the manifesto.  We wrote it because we truly believed that together, we could make the world a better place.

We weren’t the first to think so, and we certainly aren’t the last.

Feminism, in particular, has a rich history of manifestos.  Dismantling the patriarchy is no piece of cake.  It takes guts, hard work, and a lot of angry (drunken) writing.

Last year, Eileen Myles and Jill Soloway also happened to find themselves in Paris, and also happened to write a pretty badass manifesto.  Their solution to a world of male privilege and domination? For starters, film, television, books, poetry, song-writing and architecture created by men will be outlawed for the next fifty years.  Oh yeah, and “male constructed governing must cease for one hundred years (one century).”

Now that’s what I call a manifesto.

“Wait, wait,” some people might say, “is that really necessary?  Not all men are evil, you know, and they make a lot of good art.”

You better believe Eileen Myles has an answer to this question.  A manifesto, she recently explained, is not meant to be taken literally (although that would be ideal).  A manifesto is meant to be “a piece of abstract art that prods… a movement has to begin with the hyperbolic.” 

It’s been two years since my best friend and I wrote our manifesto on the Seine.  Reading it now, I feel distant from the hopeful energy of that day.  So much has changed since then, so many things have happened that I never could have imagined in that moment.

But it is for that very reason that I am glad the manifesto exists.

We will not shrink, we wrote that day, We will not minimize.  We will not apologize.  We will live as we mean to live, so brightly that our light explodes the sunlight on the river.  And we will move, covered with flowers.

Rereading those words, I am reminded that the hard work  of making the world a better place can never be accomplished alone.  That may seem like a cliché—and it is—but it also happens to be true.

The hard work begins here.  It begins with the people you know.  The people you already love.  It begins with the lives you dream up together, at sunset, in a foreign city.  It begins with the words you share with your best friend on a crinkly, water-soaked page.  It begins with the fantastical, the dramatic, the hyperbolic.

We may not be able to ban men from literature for the next fifty years, or walk around the world covered in flowers.  But we can harness the energy of these beautiful dreams, and stand our ground, even when waves of doubt come rushing towards us.  We can laugh as they splash our feet, and soak our clothes.

We can live as we mean to live: bold, and unafraid.

Grateful

November has been rough.

It’s become hard to look at a computer or open a newspaper without finding a new example or terror and hate, a new story to grieve. Our hearts here are going out to Baghdad, Beirut, Paris, the students of Mizzou, the families of the Black Lives Matter activists who were shot this Monday night, the continuous plight of the Syrian Refugees, and the staff and patients of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, as well as Planned Parenthood offices all over the country.

Honestly it can feel like  a lot of places for a heart to be at once.

How do we as feminists and social justice advocates cope with living in a world where it feels like we are facing a new tragedy every day, some of which target our personal identities? How do we sit with the grief for ourselves and for humanity in general? How, this Thanksgiving, do we find anything to be grateful for?

I haven’t found an answer that feels good for me yet. Often I feel split between the desire to join the dialogue and the understanding that my voice doesn’t need to be the most elevated one. Sometimes the only way it feels possible to stay sane is to disengage, but I don’t want to be someone who is apathetic in the face of tragedy. I also know that being able to disengage, especially for issues surrounding racial injustice and Syrian refugees, is rooted in the privilege I have as a white American.

Despite all the terror we have seen or experienced this year, I do feel we have a lot to be grateful for. I am thankful for my communities, where I have found love and support during my own hard times, and anger and solidarity during large scale tragedy. I am forever grateful to my friends and mentors who have educated me and inspired me and taught me how to better my own understanding of social justice.

I am thankful for the activists. I’m thankful for the folks who create apps and petitions and organize protests, and who believe in a better world. I’m thankful for the folks who have reported the facts about injustice being perpetrated, whether it was on Twitter or in newspapers. Without them none of the revolutionary work we have seen this year could have been possible.

I’m also thankful for grief and for anger because feeling them means I have loved. I have opened my heart to the idea of a just world and I continue to believe it can exist.

shaunking

Below are some ways you can get involved with some of the movements discussed in my blog post.

Write to your Governor and members of Congress to support refugee resettlement: http://cqrcengage.com/theirc/app/write-a-letter?0&engagementId=146418

Download Share the Meal to provide meals for Syrian refugees: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/11/app-lets-users-share-meals-syrian-children-151112200450748.html

Get involved with Planned Parenthood: https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/?_ga=1.148159799.1098778570.1448726367

Get involved with Black Lives Matter: http://blacklivesmatter.com/getinvolved/

Show up for Racial Justice (SURJ): http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/stand_with_blm_mn?sp_ref=162720005.300.17012.f.71716.2