She Who Tells a Story

Earlier this month, I went to an amazing exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts on the very last weekend it was here. It was called “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World.” Much has been written on the exhibit’s themes of identity, individuality, and refuting stereotypes about the Middle East, as well as its exploration of daily life against the backdrop of violence, war, and varying degrees of repression.

I appreciated the opportunity to explore these ideas while looking at the exhibit, but what I want to focus on in this blog post is my difficult-to-describe impression that a brief moment in the timeline of these women’s stories was intersecting with a brief moment in mine. Looking at photos of Middle Eastern high school girls in the haven of their bedrooms, surrounded by the items that mean the most to them and that express who they are and who they’re striving to become, I felt “sisterly” toward them; despite the obvious differences in our life experiences, at our core we want and need many of the same things. The exhausted faces of the women riding the subway told of concerns and challenges I can only guess at, just as I can only guess at the stories of those who ride the T with me in Boston; we brush shoulders for a few minutes, both lost in our own pain and thoughts, maybe never to see each other again in this world.  This is the human experience.

Here are a few of my favorite pieces:

Newsha Tavakolian

“Her Listen series comprises portraits of professional Iranian singers who, as women, are forbidden by Islamic tenets to record albums or perform in public…Tavakolian’s passion for these women’s stories led her to create imaginary photographic CD covers that represent the character of each performer, with titles inspired by Persian feminist slogans.” (from exhibit wall text)

"When I Was Twenty Years Old" depicts a young woman wearing red boxing gloves in front of the cityscape of Tehran, evoking ideas of youth, protest, and empowerment. Image from http://www.bildmuseet.umu.se/en/exhibition/rawiya/11836
“‘When I Was Twenty Years Old’ depicts a young woman wearing red boxing gloves in front of the cityscape of Tehran, evoking ideas of youth, protest, and empowerment.” (from exhibit wall text). Image from bildmuseet.umu.se/en/

Shadi Ghadirian

“Ghadirian’s humorous pastiches set up encounters between different times and cultures. The European-influenced backdrop of a 19th-century Qajar-era Persian photographer is juxtaposed with contemporary studio props: ‘forbidden’ or restricted objects ranging from a Pepsi can to a boom box.” (from exhibit wall text)

Image from slrlounge.com
Image from slrlounge.com

Tanya Habjouqa

“The photographs celebrate such modest pleasures as a picnic on the beach or an aerobics class…Connecting intimately with her subjects, Habjouqa gently portrays the bright side of their not-always-so-bright lives.” (from exhibit wall text)

Image from dubaicalendar.com
Image from dubaicalendar.com
Photo from bbc.co.uk
Image from bbc.co.uk

Shirin Neshat

“This early still represents metaphors of music, voice, and expression through delicately written Persian script across the singer’s face.” (from exhibit wall text)

Image from huffingtonpost.com
Image from huffingtonpost.com

Featured image from NewshaTavakolian.com

To Write Love on Her Arms

When I came back to work after Christmas and New Year’s in early January, I had a stack of holiday cards waiting for me from vendors and PR agencies. Each one tried to put their own creative spin on an annual tradition, thereby winning my favor and, ultimately, business from my company. I smirked slightly to myself, thinking that there was no way any clever gimmick was going to succeed. After all, they were missing the heart and soul of what a holiday card should be: love, goodwill, relationship.

But to my surprise, one vendor did manage to infuse a little bit of the true holiday spirit in their season’s greetings. They gave me a $15 gift card to donate to a charity of my choice. (Yes, I know charitable donations can be just as much a marketing ploy as anything else, but I’ll admit that they work on me.)

I eagerly browsed the website listing thousands of charities, excited to find one I hadn’t donated to in a while (if ever). My eyes flitted across the name of an organization I hadn’t thought much about since college: To Write Love on Her Arms.

This organization, which is focused on raising awareness and finding solutions for depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide, had been somewhat trendy to support when I was in school. I remember lots of the artsy students, and many of my fellow English majors, sporting shirts with the logo. Because the name spoke to me – to write love on her arms – I asked them what the organization stood for. Most of them couldn’t articulate it very well; they just said something about how some group of people (in some versions of the story, it was a band; sometimes it was specifically Switchfoot) took care of a girl right before she entered a formal rehab facility and how this group now goes around talking about it.

As someone who wore the badge “Critical Thinker” very seriously at the time, I had to find out if this was just some feel-good fad or if it was real. Either I didn’t have ears to hear or the organization’s website also struggled to articulate its purpose, but I remember sadly admitting to myself that these well-intentioned people were fooling themselves. Yes, I “saw through” them as I saw through so many things. From my perspective, they had helped one girl and were now designing T-shirts and getting alternative bands to endorse them and, oh yeah, they had a few resources to help depressed people get in touch with a qualified therapist.

Image from http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/to-write-love-on-her-arms/images/17797997/title/3-photo
Image from FanPop.com

Little did I understand the power of story, of art, of music. Little did I understand what an organization built on those things could become. An organization built on story is like a holiday card sent out of undemanding, unselfish love: They both have meaning and spirit behind the actions.

While browsing that charity website this month, the name To Write Love on Her Arms spoke to me again. And once again, I pulled up their website. Only this time, I saw how that fledgling nonprofit with only a story had started programs of all kinds to reach people in the deepest pain. Each program and initiative was imbued with the spirit of that story, a truth deeper than any statistical report about suicide rates among teens. I saw how story and art and music could “bedew, embalme, and overrunne” the hearts of those who desperately need hope.

And I re-read the original story that started it all. You can read it too.

The woman who inspired the founding of this organization, a woman considered too high risk for some treatment centers, was asked what she would say if her story had an audience. She responded:

“Tell them to look up. Tell them to remember the stars. The stars are always there but we miss them in the dirt and clouds. We miss them in the storms. Tell them to remember hope. We have hope.”

Thank God her story does have an audience. Thank God for cynicism transformed into hope. And thank God for all stories and works of art and songs that help us to remember the stars.

Featured image from Angelnel.deviantart.com.

Friend Love on Social Media

Friend Love on Social Media

– Yumi Sakugawa, I Think I Am in Friend-Love With You (via NPR)

I’m not entirely sure why, but posting this picture (and saying that I like it — in both the Facebook and the real-life sense) feels like a slightly embarrassing confession. But it’s true that most of my deepest friendships have been based on this principle of finding the same things beautiful, funny, and heartbreaking in this world. And social media can provide an opportunity to find out that the things that resonate with me also resonate with others.

It’s like when you’re on the subway and you notice the cover of a book someone’s reading or you can hear music blasting out of their earphones; if it’s a book or song that means something to you, there’s a feeling that this stranger is a kindred spirit. Someone who could maybe become a friend in the over-quoted Aristotelian definition of “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

Perhaps these ideas feel like confessions because Facebook “likes” and moments on public transportation are mere shadows of what real friendship should be. They awaken a deep desire for a meeting of the minds and hearts, but they cannot fulfill it on their own.

But no friendship is Ideal (to move from Aristotle to Plato). Nevertheless, we do sometimes experience the rare gift of having people in our lives who, in their own way, reach below the surface and touch our souls — for the span of time it takes to read a retweet, for a season, or even for a lifetime.

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make It a Liz Lemon Night

For all of us, like Liz Lemon, who thought this was going to be our year and who now find ourselves discouraged that we couldn’t even make it a week, let’s sit back and enjoy this great scene from the opening episode of 30 Rock Season 2. After all, when life gives you lemons, that means it’s time for a Liz Lemon night. Because laughter and asking in a mock-Seinfeld voice, “What is the deal with my life?” make everything better.

Additionally, here’s a wonderful Jack/Liz moment from the end of this episode, while Liz is eating takeout food and sitting on the floor in her wedding dress (which she bought because it was on sale, even though she recently broke up with her boyfriend):

Jack: Good God, Lemon. What’s happened to you? l thought this was going to be your year.
Liz: l couldn’t even hold it together one week. l’m not you, Jack. l can’t have a heart attack and pretend like it never happened. l can’t break up with someone and immediately recover. l’m not you. l’m just me.
Jack: Lemon, don’t ever say you’re just you. Because you are better than you. And l am not going to let you give up. This is going to be our year. Now give me the ham.
Liz: l like the ham.
Jack: Come on.
Liz: $4,000 ham napkin. l look pretty, though, right?
Jack: Don’t push it, Lemon.