Refuge

When I drove to California and back by myself a few years ago, several people from my blogging life offered me shelter. This touched me beyond what I likely can still adequately express. I was at a place in my life where I really didn't know how to be around other people, and yet needed it badly. I never feel comfortable asking for help, and was deluded enough at the time to believe I didn't need it. But once I mentioned in my online communities that I would be making this trip, the doors started opening as quickly as I could say "No no, I couldn't. No no, I don't want to put you out." 

I barely knew a few of the people who were offering to open their homes to me. I knew them in the way we get to know each other online, though -- relatively quickly, and in many cases powerfully, based in intellectual and emotional connections forged through the daily sharing of stories, opinions, and life experiences. We worked on websites and books and events together. We connected in words and pictures amid the growing noise of the internet.

It's hard to explain to people who haven't experienced this, the way that aside from my own bananas off-the-charts social anxiety I felt completely comfortable stopping along the road in North Carolina, Texas, Arizona -- every state I touched, pretty much -- and walking into the homes of the people I met on the internet. So many meals. So many fantastic living room conversations. So much sitting side by side in the same room tweeting, finally. 

Faiqa and her family were among these gracious people. I'd met her maybe once. I was scared of her because I knew her brain was the size of the United States and potentially the planet so I didn't know if I could keep up. On this trip, I learned about her heart. I had no idea why she wanted me to stop by and stay at her house, but when I got a message that basically said she'd have hurt feelings if I didn't so I'd better, I had to cop to the fact that either she really liked me or she wanted to Twitpic me in her house really badly, and she is just never that desperate. 

She happens to be Muslim and live in a southern state. We talk about her religion and culture sometimes, because she wrote about it a lot when she was writing more on her blog, and also it is a part of her, and we are talky, thinky people who consider and discuss and write and talk about the many, many components of our lives in this country and on this planet.

 

There are other things we talk about, too. Jokes and catchphrases, the stupidity of the daily and the banal as much as the sadness and ignorance of the horror show that is our sociopolitical stage. I'm interested in the fact that she is absurdly funny, and way smarter than you, probably. (Sorry.) She has a husband who went and got fried chicken from the best place in their town so I could try it when I was there, and also made naan in their kitchen. She took her kid into her room so I could borrow a bed in theirs. She took me to the place where James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to the museum that has grown up around that motel. We walked around this sad and important place together, taking in the insanity of hatred and of people fighting to be recognized as humans in their own country. 

She took me to Graceland, and to a diner with perfect biscuits, and we hung out with her kids. She sat up late and talked with me, and listened to me, on a couple of days during the darkest and most confusing period in my life. I'm not even sure she knew it was that kind of time, but she was just the kind of friend I needed then anyway. 

When I left, she invited me to come back. (I swear to you this happened. I don't care what she says.) Hell, she invited me to move back, and I believe she meant it. I believed that she would make space for me, or help me find my own--a generous gift for someone who couldn't light anywhere at the time, who wasn't sure I could, ever. 

I have gone on to encounter kindness since. Things have turned around for me quite a bit, while the world around me seems determined to implode. But she and her family were a genuine embrace at the time that gave me some encouragement to keep going when I didn't want to, mostly because I didn't know how.

(I learned at Graceland that Elvis said "Taking care of business" all the time -- "TCB" for short. This is our shorthand acronym for as long as we shall know each other, and it's perfect, because this is what this woman does, every minute, all the time. If she needed me for anything I'd be there to TCB. It's how it is.)  

----------------------

Over the past 14 years, I have taught countless immigrants and refugees from around the world. I don't know all of my students' stories, but I can tell you anecdotally that the odds of a student who has had to fight to get here busting her ass for a good grade are very, very high. I can also tell you -- again, anecdotally, but 14 years means many anecdotes -- that once they are here they are too busy trying to keep their heads above water to do much more than work and begin the arduous process of carving out a life. I have heard stories of domestic slavery and violence, poverty, four jobs, grieving and homesickness and intense loneliness borne of living in a country where it is culturally every person for him or herself in a way it is not in the places where many of my students come from. 

I meet every single student where she is, and I have never once asked anyone to justify her seat in my classroom or my office. I ask for stories, though, in the interest of either teaching writing or helping them to get acclimated to the American educational system, and I get them. I know the profound value of access to freedom to many of them. I know what it means to others to leave a beloved place because of precarious political and social situations.  I can't possibly walk in these shoes, but I have a better idea than I did before I became a teacher of a population this diverse.  

------------------------------------

I'm not into justifying or defending anyone's humanity, not the friend who was kind to me when I needed it nor the diligent and hopeful students who pass through my classroom. That is not the point of this at all. What is is that it's ridiculous that I would have to do that at all.  It destroys me that people I know and love like this are castigated for who they are. It destroys me that this happens to millions more who are not my personal friends or colleagues or neighbors or fellow Americans. And really, whatever that last one means anymore. I don't think I'm the fellow of the person who noted in a comment the other day that people of my political persuasion "lack morals, hate America, and defend sinning." It's hard to feel connected to that kind of vibe. It's hard to feel like it's even a desirable thing to relate in based on common country of origin, particularly when I've met so many people in my life who were not born here or who even live here who would not speak of me or any human being that way. But I digress. 

It's hard enough to see anyone be hated and threatened just because of who she is, what she looks like, where she comes from, or what side of a country she lives on. It's particularly painful to see it affect a friend, student, colleague or neighbor. When you've looked into someone's eyes and come to know and appreciate them for their sum total, it's ridiculous to tear down the parts. 

Faiqa wrote this a little over a year ago: 

Humans talking about other humans.

Humans with sons, and little girls, and mothers, and favorite TV shows and, please, for the love of all things remember that every time you write or say Israeli, Jew, Palestinian or Arab that you are talking about HUMANS.

Even the ones that we think are wrong are humans just like you. Please don't inhabit the world of "can't imagine" where you fool yourself into thinking you'd do things differently. You probably wouldn't. Because you are a human, too.

We must do this - remember that at the core we are all humans. We must do this or we will perish. Maybe not perish in the physical sense, but in the most terrible way that humanity can perish.

What I'm seeing around the world currently is the destruction wrought when people don't know what they're talking about, or the people that they're talking about, obviously, at all. It will be our global undoing, left unchecked. No one should have to defend her humanity. No one should face a globally closed door when conditions where they are are such that they cannot stay, even when leaving could mean death. 

No one should close that door arbitrarily, in fear and judgment. I don't understand a person who could do it, but if I'm reading my internet correctly, there are many.