Monday, October 22, 2012


Amira isn't really her name, but it is close. I met her a couple of months ago when she came into our office with her mother-in-law. She came in looking for some help with her English, and had been told that she had missed the current term and would have to wait until January to join the next set of classes. They came to my office to see if there was anything I could do to help. Amira is from South Yemen, and I was touched immediately by how familiar her looks were, how much she looked like hundreds of young women I had met there twenty some years ago. She is petite too, and careful and meticulous in her dress. I doubt that she weighs more than 90 pounds, and to some she might look like a large doll.
Her mother-in-law did most of the talking, and I watched Amira as we chatted. She was very attentive and polite, and a noticed a determined if not slightly playful sparkle in her eyes. It has long been my custom to tutor a few students each term on my own, and I was considering offering to help Amira myself. I floated the idea past them, cautioning them that I understood the culture and I didn't want any difficulties. They both got very excited by the prospect, and Amira's mother-in-law promised me there would be no issues, that she understood what I was saying, but that she and her son wanted the best for Amira. We set up a schedule to meet twice a week until January straight away.
From the start, I have really enjoyed our time together. We meet in the open conference room in my department, and we work for an hour at a time on Tuesday and Thursday. We have a few workbooks we use, an English-Arabic picture dictionary, and lots and lots of homework. Amira has been in the States for five years and she has a decent vocabulary. Working with her is a bit challenging because she is a perfectionist and doesn't want to make any mistakes, which of course inhibits our progress a bit. Amira has a son and daughter, and her life seems to be pretty full and somewhat complex, but she is always on time, cheerful, and usually prepared. We laugh a lot and Amira keeps me on my toes. I will miss her when she joins a class in January.
I chuckle when I think of Amira and the typical American's view of Arab women. Amira is diminutive, usually reserved, and probably appears to them to be a down-trodden and subservient female. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a subtle strength in her that often amazes me. Amira has a very firm backbone, and I see it many ways. When we talk and she is certain about something, she gets a small smile on her face, tilts her head a bit and tells me matter of factly what she thinks. When she comes to the conversation group, she waits her turn then speaks confidently and well, all the while with that small head turn and smile. She is a strong young woman - strong and graceful.
Amira will do well as she continues her language studies. She will raise good and strong children, and I am sure she will explore a career as well. Like so many of my students, it is so cool and so much an honor for me to intersect with her, even briefly, during this point of her trajectory. I have the best job on earth..............

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Evolving - Being Here

A few years ago, I stumbled on a folder in my attic containing my academic documents for the past thirty-five years. I started to read the letters of reference I had accumulated over time, and it was a pleasant journey into the past. I found myself laughing out loud though when I discovered a pattern in the three decades of testimony - almost all of them (from my late teenage years through my late thirties) commented on my relative maturation during our relationship. Funny, I thought, that if I was still maturing at this rate as a nearly middle-aged man, what must have I been like as a younger man? I laughed harder when I realized I probably didn't want to know...........
This post isn't about my evolution as a maturing male, rather as a human who is learning how to love. I won't recover my childhood here, the implications are far too obvious and frankly too trite now to process anymore, at least in terms of how I was taught to love. Instead, I am thinking about how I have learned to love as an adult, and in a more particular sense, romantically. My first reaction in this casual analysis was to shudder thinking about the women I knew as a younger male, and how little I had to offer them in this regard. I was so incomplete as a loving male that I struggle to find even the fragments that allowed me to pretend that I was. I will always regret the betrayal of these inequitable unions, none of them deserved it.
Having never really given it, my heart wasn't broken until much later in my life. If learning a language is easier when you are younger, then surviving this kind of first heartache must be a million times worse when you significantly older. But this is not a lesson in pity, instead a reminder that I didn't just arrive at a place where I could love someone correctly and honestly and then lost - I still had work to do, and the loss was probably the only way I could advance and learn. Tough lesson, nice new place though.
What I thought was the right place, the right union, the right love was just a bit short-sighted and selfish. It didn't feel selfish though; it felt wonderful and giving, free and enveloping. I gave all that I thought I had willingly, and I opened my heart and shared everything I had kept hidden for so long. But I did not understand the purpose of doing so, didn't appreciate the unconditional aspects of those gifts I incompletely gave. I had given with the expectation or hope that I would receive in some proportion, and I failed to understand that what we needed to build would be neither hers or mine, but ours. And when I began to feel that "ours" wasn't coalescing as it should, I pathetically retreated to "mine" and spent several years in a self-induced exile from the world, much worse than I had ever experienced before. I had come close I thought, then tumbled so far back.
Lately, I have reexamined my notions of love and romance, and I realize that maybe I haven't retreated at all, only passed through an invisible transition, a disequilibration of sorts that heralds a very comfortable and possibly peaceful place. Looking back now, particularly at my most recent relationship, I realize that my love is still here only stronger in a very wholesome way. I am glad she is happy, and I am honored that she thinks of me occasionally and contacts me. I love the fact that I am here for her (and to be honest, for those before her too) if she would ever need something. This comforts me, maybe more so than some ethereal romantic union. Being here - enough for me.
In a more general sense, I think I am here for a lot of people, and that pleases me too. Being here without thought to reward or recompense, enjoying the communion of trust I have finally earned with so many people. Being here, smiling.