Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 44: My Feet (Flying While Arab) + Josie Setzler

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 44: My Feet (Flying While Arab) + Josie Setzler

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him,
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him,
“Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
            --John 13

I find the synchronicities between daily Scripture and the poems uncanny; both John and my poem have to do with exposing one’s (dirty) feet! Here, Simon Peter first refuses to have Jesus wash his feet. After all, he calls Jesus his Master, and looks up to him with a certain kind of awe. It’s hard to know whether he is shocked and horrified that Jesus might bend to clean his feet, or whether he secretly wants him to do it—after all, he asks the question. But then when Jesus says that he must, or else there is no future between them, Simon Peter offers up not only his feet, but his hands and head. His whole body, his whole self.

In the poem below, my taking off my shoes—in the days after the Richard Reid failed shoe-bombing episode in 2002—became an occasion for a woman to suspect me of terrorism. FWA: Flying While Arab. I’ve thought about that incident often over the years, and how I failed to answer her paranoid gaze. The poem became a way of answering.

Thanks to Josie Setzler for her commentary!

“The poem with the sticky eyes” by Josie Setzler

Her gaze widened and neck craned as I (her eyes) slowly removed (her eyes) my shoes.

As I read Metres’s poem, I could feel the woman’s eyes sticking to him, just as they stuck to the words in this sentence. It was all I remembered of the poem at first reading. This was the poem with the sticky eyes. I could feel them on my own body as well, even though as a white woman of Dutch ancestry, I knew that Americans weren’t thinking of me when they repeated Homeland Security’s warning: “See something, say something.” 

Sometimes I’m afraid I’m carrying a bomb.

Yet it is the eyes themselves that are the weapon. Penetrating this man’s very sense of himself, they violate him. Violate…violence…eyes as bombs. The word violate comes from the Latin violare, “to treat with violence, outrage, dishonor.” Violare is thought to be an irregular derivative of vis, “strength, force, power, energy.”  And now I recall that I am white and those eyes are my eyes. I move through my days in a mostly white bubble and am barely aware of how I am protected by the ‘vis’ of my whiteness. Maybe my eyes have done a darting, shifting thing when I have been taken by surprise by someone who looks different from me.  Why do my eyes do that?

Later, visiting a Quaker meeting, I sat among scattered chairs.

Funny that the poet should mention the scattered chairs. Maybe it’s a relief that they are not all lined up, focused, like the sight on a gun.

On the shores of breathing, all eyes shut I waded. Silence our rudder, silence our harbor.

Silence is another relief. And now we read that the diffused space of silence acts as a rudder. A rudder gives direction, yet silence’s power to direct is different from the power of those fiercely focused eyes. Identity finds safe harbor when silence gives it precious space.

I’m still puzzling over the poem’s transition from those violating eyes to this Quaker meeting. I have trusted silence myself for some years now, trying to stay faithful to a centering prayer practice. Earlier it was Zen. My Zen teacher used to recommend that we keep our eyes half open, cast down and softly focused on a spot on the floor in front of us. He asked us to gentle our gaze. Gentling my gaze is never easy--in any part of my day. I need help. Poetry conspires with the silence to gentle not only my eyes, but my heart and mind as well.  I am deeply grateful.

The lamp of the body is the eye. It follows that if your eye is clear, your whole body will be filled with light. --Mt 6: 22


Maureen said...

I can't help but wonder if you had been seated next to the woman, would she have asked for another seat, stayed and eventually have engaged you in small talk? I also can imagine how unsettling that constant gaze must have been. (Knowing myself, I don't think I could have remained silent had her eyes been on me.) What both of you shared in common was the aisle dividing you. I'm glad you found through your excellent poem a way to breach that divide.

"Silence is another relief," as Josie says in her insightful commentary. It also can make one complicit. It takes both eyes and a voice to speak up, to speak out.

Philip Metres said...

There are indeed three silences--the silencing of the gaze upon me and my own self-silencing, and then the good silence of opening, at the Quaker meeting!