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Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country PART III

August 11, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

(PART III of 3.) Aama disappears into the darkened house to light the fire. Flames ignite from hot coals stirred out of the ash and she eases a pot of kodo onto the rock grill. Neither an announcement nor a spoken invitation is needed. We rise from our workplaces and move inside, seating ourselves around the hearth. Danamaya takes a ladle, stirs the brew, and pours a spoon of the steaming liquor in each brass bowl set on the ground in front of us.

Mylie follows laying small leaf plates on the ground near our drink, then returns and fills each plate with a black, spicy sauce. I recognize this, a sharp lemony pickle-- a typical popular Limbu achar that accompanies every Nepali’s meal whether we’re eating rice or vegetables or drinking liquor. Some of the workers prefer kodo; others chose raxsi, also warmed to taste.

‘I’m surprised”, I remark. “My friend Monamaya isn’t with us. She promised to help with my naugiri.”

“Monamaya will arrive soon”, murmurs Danamaya, adding “when the raxsi is warmed.”

Just then Monamaya struts into the room and seats herself beside me, gleefully accepting an immodest portion of raxsi from Aama and turning to me says, “Ah, Didi; so you’ll have your very own Limbu jewels; eh eh.” She leans closer, lifts my cigarette from my hand and holds its glowing tip to light her own.

“What a day! A sheep got loose so sisters and I spent the whole morning searching for it,” complains this unapologetic latecomer. Everyone takes a sip of their drink without comment.

In my presence people withhold their opinion of Monamaya. They know she and I have become good friends since my arrival here and they seem to respect our closeness. Monamaya is the only unmarried woman her age that I know in Kobek. She’s the most audaciously raucous and bold, even by Limbu standards. I recognize that she’s a social oddity. She doesn't like to work in the fields, behavior which in this rural community is interpreted as irresponsible. Like me, she doesn’t feel the need for a companion when traveling through the hills. If she needs to go to town, she fearlessly sets out alone on the three-day walk. I was never able to discover the reason for my friend’s unpopularity, and I was left to enjoy her companionship as I pleased.

After everyone has consumed at least three bowls of kodo, we return to the veranda where we’ll stay until our task is complete, now joined by Monamaya. The alcohol seems not to have reduced anyone’s capacity for the delicate work. “Kodo and raxsi are nourishment for us,” explains my friend. “Without it we can’t work at all; drinking this we don’t need any other food.”

Our workforce is next augmented by two newcomers, elderly women from Salaka lineage, thus clanswomen of my host. Buddhamaya is a tall, dry-witted lady with aristocratic features supported by a heavily wrinkled face. We adjust our seating to make space for Buddhamaya on the mat; Danamaya hands her a nylon thread to which she replies, “Who is this for?”

“White Didi here,” explains my host.

“Why do you want this?” the old woman demands of me. “This is for poor farmers. You should have solid gold pieces-- here, here, here,” she shouts, stroking me to indicate just where gold might encase my head and arms  like some Limbu-Aztec warrior princess. (Ugh, the thought is itself an encumbrance.)

Monamaya comes to my defense. “No, no. white Didi is going to wear this to the Chatrapati feast next week; then she’ll take it with her to America. Everyone there will admire it. And Didi will tell Americans all about our poor land.”

I remain silent. I have already passed hours fruitlessly arguing with my hosts about my devotion to their lifestyles. I’ve had no success explaining how this necklace is an example of their art, or their beauty.   They insist that my interest is only curiosity, and this naugiri will be presented outside as a curio, and will stimulate discussion of Nepal’s economy, an economy they expect to be viewed as poverty.

It’s probably true that I’m interested in the naugiri for what it might (or might not) represent about the economy here. I’ve never understood how an average hill farmer affords jewelry like the naugiri and the gold earrings, items which seem extravagant to me, yet which, while essential, are not a sign of wealth. A naugiri is the price of a valued plowing bullock. While every woman wears a naugiri, fewer than ten percent of households possess a pair of oxen.

Certainly one can’t equate the cost of this necklace to the price of an ox. A naugiri is not in the same class as animals or land. Land is highly valued and people work hard to save to buy land and prepare new paddy fields. A naugiri is hard to put a cash price on. It’s an obligatory expense for a family, like a wedding or funerary feast—an integral part of family social and economic obligations.

A Limbu naugiri embodies a whole set of sentiments which I cannot possibly untangle, identify and comprehend. It’s not a dowry. It does not in itself mark one’s marital status. My naugiri it does not reflect a personal indulgence in ornamentation. I myself wear no bangles, bracelets or earrings. (My neighbors had already noted this, with some dismay.) Nevertheless these Limbu companions really want me to take this piece of jewelry with me when I depart. Curio or art, it is a gift to me wrapped in their memories. It symbolizes our bond and the cooperative spirit of our months together.

As for myself? Why am I determined to have a naugiri? Well, from when I first set eyes on one, it symbolized the vigor or Limbu womanhood. I like its combination of a coarse, chunky, undazzling weightiness, and its dull gold luster. It may not be refined, but it’s nevertheless beautiful, somehow more precious because every woman owns one. It’s not for special occasions but an everyday thing she carries on her chest-- as she suckles her baby, stirs pots of kodo and rice, cleans the hearth and sweeps the yard, and plants potato or millet.  It’s a well made object requiring intense labor and constructed to last a lifetime.

 

Where is my naugiri today? Well, it seemed so precious that I made it a wedding gift to the young woman who married my son. Sadly, they divorced after only two years and I’ve lost track of both her and the necklace. I wonder what Danamaya or even Monamaya would think of its fate.  END.

Originally published in Heresies, A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, Jan/Feb, 1978. Edited for republication 2017.   

[ Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country PART III ]

Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country Part II

August 04, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

continued from Part I

Chait Purnima morning. The essentials for our day’s work are assembled before our guest workers arrive on our doormats. A five gallon pot of kodo (millet beer) is fermenting inside the house; we also have six bottles of raxsi, the clear gin-like drink distilled from fermented kodo. Kodo is generally not for sale but produced (in every home) for family consumption. (A better quality is made and reserved for special occasions.) Danamaya had only a week to prepare this stock so it is coarser (and less potent). It will have to do. The bottled raxsi is not as refined a quality –sweet and aged for months in cool, sealed pots--as we would have liked. Danamaya sells me three bottles of passable quality, and we add to these another three bottles purchased from a neighbor glad to have extra cash before market day. (She can sell the rest of her stock then by the glass.)

Liquor production and sale is a pivotal item in this culture. First it’s an essential medium by which to pay workers, in this case compensation to the assembly of women who will fashion my necklace. Second, Limbu alcohol facilitates warm memories of times spent together, occasions like this Purnima. Third, sale of liquor in the market is an important source of cash, the foundation of women’s independent economic experience. Exclusive brewers of this highly popular product, these women and most other hill people refine their brewing skills and compete for the cash rewards.

From a young age Limbu women own jewelry. Their attachment to jewelry derives though their family membership and their own contribution to the household economy. Her nose-ring is a girl’s first acquisition; she may be hardly ten when she has her first band of gold. Year by year, as she grows, twirls of gold leaf purchased from her own earnings are added to it. From childhood a girl is allowed to keep what she earns from the goats she’s given to care for. Thus, by the age of 18, a young Limbu woman may be able to purchase her own gold earrings.

The naugiri is a different matter. It is acquired with womanhood and marriage. A gift from her family at the time of her betrothal.

Five women from our household begin the day’s work on my naugiri. Danamaya takes charge at the outset by anchoring a nylon rope to her body. (She has clearly done this many times.) Rubbing the loosened rope ends in her palms, she separates it into individual strands. Forty-five threads spread on her lap, secured at one end by a single knot between her toes. Each of us takes a single strand and arranges ourselves in a crescent becoming a human loom around Danamaya who coordinates the entire enterprise. She takes up each beaded string after we’ve filled it with tiny green glass drops; in exchange she offers us an empty one to continue our threading.

Watching Danamaya manage us I remember how efficiently she organizes our entire household. I noted this because I know Danamaya doesn’t legally reside here. True, this is her natal home, her maitighar. But like any married woman, Danamaya gave up many of her rights here when she married and moved to her husband’s family house taking her dowry with her. Here, Danamaya is a visitor with Deepa, her baby girl. In Limbu culture, it’s not uncommon for women to bring their children on a visit to the maitighar and stay for several months. Meanwhile their husbands are away as well. (They travel to India and Malaysia for work. Danamaya’s husband, for example, is serving in a Gurkha regiment in India.) I could never ascertain what she thought about this separation, or what her mother-in-law might feel about her absence. But Danamaya’s own family in Kobek is delighted to have her around and they let her run the house. (How her sisters-in-law feel about this, I never knew.)

            We begin stringing the beads after our morning meal. Soon, Laxmi, Danamaya’s neighbor and friend arrives and she grasps a nylon thread like the rest of us, joining this circular-loom. She holds it taut and silently feeds the tiny green glass beads, one after another. Kobek is also Laxmi’s maitighar. Unlike Danamaya however, she doesn't intend to return to her marriage house. She remained there only until her baby was born, she explains. The infant is here with her and she has no intention of their returning to her husband. She doesn't like him, she offers matter-of-factly.

A woman once married cannot normally rejoin her maitighar, so Laxmi is fortunate to be welcome here. As long as her maiti is willing to have her, a Limbu woman can divorce her husband. She may also remarry. With no apparent anxiety about her future Laxmi joins in our Chait Purnima project, beads sliding from her fingers onto a thread.

Danamaya coordinates our work, maintaining the tension in each thread: “Enough, give it to me. Good, now take this one.”

After only an hour, Danamaya’s left hand holds only a few unadorned strings. In her right hand she grips a bunch of completed clusters of dense beads, each three inches long.  We rush to complete the remaining threads. This completed, it’s time to add a gold knob. First the cluster of threads is squeezed together and fed through the opening in the red cloth ring, what I call a washer. We sit back as Danamaya proceeds to assemble the elements: red felt ring, gold, red again. We watch the soft golden jewel shimmering down the rope and secured by another ring of red. Since the gold is pure, it’s very soft and needs careful handling. Danamaya grips the threaded strings against the red-haloed golden nugget and signals us to reassemble. We are handed a new thread to bead and resume work, feeding the beads down the string until each of us has completed another three inches.

The seven of us have established a rhythm together and precede independent of Danamaya’s instructions. Another hour and I begin to discern an emerging pattern in the necklace. Sparkling, tiny green glass, then a soft red flare against the dull luster of gold, another red flare, then sparkling glass, red again flanking the next knob of gold. Time for a rest. Watch for part III

Edited for republication 2017 Originally published in Heresies, A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, Jan/Feb, 1978. Part 3 forthcoming

 

[ Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country Part II ]

Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country PART I

August 01, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

As I cull my writings, I find some articles undeletable. Even as a historical portrait, some seem to be relevant today. In Nepal, land cultivation is declining as young people seek employment abroad to earn cash. Nepal, even for its poorer citizens, including farmers, has become a consumer economy. Meanwhile women continue to produce alcohol for sale and bead jewelry for daughters’ marriage. This edited 1978 story will be posted in 3 parts.

==========================

PART 1: Chait Purnima, the full moon day (1977), reminds me a month has passed since my arrival here in Kobek village, a Himalayan hamlet in east Nepal. Light spring winds move over the trees and across clear swept courtyards, bringing with it the faint but reassuring voices of neighbors.

At the arrival of the full moon, fields empty of workers. People are freed from agricultural labor for the holiday, and today Danamaya’s neighbors will converge on our veranda. All women here are artisans. They weave the Limbu tartan cloth shawls and skirts worn by everyone, and they knot their own straw mats and baskets. Women are the brewers of beer and distilled spirits as well. Polishing rice and pressing oil are women’s skills too.

This full moon day, our neighborhood artisans will gather at my host’s doorway. They’ve been invited to help make a special ornament—for me.

 

During the better part of a year now, I’ve been moving around this eastern hill region, previously unknown to me, trying to understand rural economy. On a short stay a year earlier I met some Limbu people I’d only read about in anthropological literature. Limbu are an integral part of Nepal society yet very different from the Tibetan and Sherpa I was familiar with from previous research in Solu-Khumbu. Solu is three mountain ranges away, but hardly two hundred kilometers northwest (a ten day walk until the 1990s).

Exploitation of Limbu land rights by high-caste Brahmin villagers had been documented by my colleague Lionel Caplan. Limbu came to national attention as one of a handful of Nepal’s many ethnic groups to publicly criticize the government’s policy regarding minorities; that was during the monarchy when no dissent was tolerated. From medics and development officers impressed by Limbu culture, I also learned these women enjoy unusual economic independence. I decided to visit the area and learn more about them and this part of such a culturally and geographically diverse land.

Limbu would become one part of my limited comparative study of ethnic groups living near the primary north-south trade artery of east Nepal. I’d already surveyed a Sherpa community further north, and I stayed in a village inhabited by Newar and Tamang farmers. Limbu not only appear to be a physically quite different race; their rice cultivation and therefore their economy as well as their social values differ markedly. Living with Limbu, I often feel I might be in Burma or Thailand; whereas with Sherpa, one imbibes its underlying Tibetan flavor. I’ve already engaged with several Nepali cultures: the robust Sherpa herders and farmers, the richest of the highland peoples; progressive Newar traders and shopkeepers, many of whose daughters are in school; Rai hill people, a large ethnic group found in villages all across Nepal, also good farmers; Magar villagers who seem impoverished by the standard of other groups who dislodge them from their modest holdings; members of the Brahman and Chetri higher castes, know for their frugality and industriousness, exert restrictions on women who often become ascetics and join riverside hermitages.

 

I announce my plan to take up residence in Kobek village and join a prosperous family of farmers, selecting a corner of an empty hayloft for myself behind the main house. It affords me the privacy I need while giving me easy access to the main house, where, as the weeks pass I spend almost all my time.

This residence is one of a cluster of two-story farmhouses on a steep hillside. Lemon bushes and groves of bamboo veil neighboring houses from one another. But familiar sounds, human and animal, bridge the boundaries between us.

The dark interiors of these dwellings are used for cooking, sleep and storage. Except to cook, no one works indoors. Routine domestic work proceeds on the veranda and in the cleanly swept courtyards in front. It’s here that villagers gather throughout pleasant, dry winter months and where work and social life are hardly distinguishable. With the arrival of spring, activity shifts from verandas to muddy fields on slopes above and below our village dwellings. Early wheat wants cutting and the earth in the patchwork of terraces must be broken so that tender millet and rice sprouts will take hold.

At Chait Purnima we have prepared for the arrival of seven women who’ll make a Limbu naugiri, a necklace of the nine (nau) golden jewels (giri) set among the mass of stringed beads. All Nepalis wear elaborate homemade jewelry, each culture with its own distinguishing design. Limbu women’s chunky naugiri necklace, worn day and night, in the fields, nursing their infants, to market, and at weddings, seems to express the general reputation of these women. They are known for their industry, their assertiveness, and pride. To me, the naugiri symbolizes that vigor and I want to take one with me when I leave them.

My interest in having my own naugiri delights my host Danamaya and other women. But where am I to obtain one? I wouldn’t want an old one bought from a bank, my friends assure me; those worn jewels have value only as security against land purchase loans. The women insist that I must have a new naugiri. But new necklaces cannot be purchased; they are not produced for a market. A Limbu woman’s naugiri is fabricated especially for her by others in her family at the time of her marriage. It’s decided that my surrogate family here in Kobek will make mine. (Never mind about a wedding.)

                I commit myself to this scheme with the purchase of the key material—pure gold, costing about 500 Nepali rupees ($50.) on the Limbu market (at the time). This thola of gold (about half an ounce) I buy from a Kobek man recently returned from military service in Malaysia. Next, we visit the local goldsmith. His shabby hut is located on the edge of the village because he’s a member of a low ranked (out)caste. We find him seated on the second story veranda occupied with his trade. A regular stream of clients keeps him occupied, but he’s not too busy to accept my order; it will be ready in a few days. I visit him daily to observe him tap that worthless looking metal lump I’d entrusted to him into paper-thin lustrous yellow sheets. The precious metal emerges into its inert beauty in his outcasted hands. Finally he molds and engraves each of the nine leaves of gold into individual hollow spheres-- my very own knuckly, assertive stones that will be the heart of my necklace.

Between each chunk, we women will set thousands of green glass beads. (I buy these at the weekly market, selected from the trays of dazzling bangles and beads imported from India and sold by rows of vendors seated on the roadside, each huddled around her wares.) I’m also directed to buy red felt cloth from which we will cut piece to be pressed like washers on either side of each golden ball. Finally, for the string we need to thread and arrange those beads, we unwind a length of yellow nylon rope cut from my backpack.  END of PART 1

Originally published in Heresies, A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, Jan/Feb, 1978. Edited for republication here

[ Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country PART I ]

Covering Islam: Post Jack Shaheen

July 20, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The event of 9/11 is unparalleled in history, in drama, in audacity, in the terrorific images, in deaths, in its live transmission, in its ongoing controversies. It remains a traumatizing American experience with continually unfolding consequences. One result is the rise and persistence of hostility by Americans not only towards the perpetrators, Arab agents purportedly motivated by a religious ideologue, but also entire Arab nations and Arab and Muslim peoples worldwide.

This everlasting bitterness exaggerates the tragedy in the minds of Americans. At the same time, it interrupts and distorts Muslims’ self-identity and the daily injustices we experience.

Any conversation, private or public, with other Muslims about our current woes and anxieties-- our prayers and dreams, our relations with fellow students, neighbors and co-workers-- somehow finds its way back to that dreadful iconic date in 2001. It is a shadow haunting us wherever we go—to the ballot box, in our classroom, at a job interview, down our neighborhood street, on a holiday.

That event has become such a part of us, even if we think we buried it, that we unwittingly own it. We write books and magazine essays condemning terror and demonstrating our American-ness; we pen memoirs documenting our victimization; we reply to surveys testifying to our children’s bullying by classmates and teachers alike; we join interfaith sessions; we seek out grants to teach others about the calm nature of our religion and the beauty of our cultures. Even as we do so, that awful event remains the peg around which our existence rotates—favorably or otherwise.

The death of media critic Jack Shaheen earlier this month is an opportunity to offer our post-9/11 generation (there it is again) of activists and commentators an essential historical perspective on the demonizing process in which we are enmeshed.

Shaheen’s work needs to be better known by American Muslims. It warns us: “Go beyond 9/11; that vicious blight consuming our history and humanity has been with us for a long time. It’s not only driven by our nightly news broadcasts; it is embedded in our children’s school books and our most entertaining action films starring our favorite actors”.

As powerful as the medieval Christian crusade, Hollywood’s film industry is behind a century of productions targeting Arab and Muslim peoples—in animated children’s films, exotic tales of romance, and in American war legends.

Shaheen was a professor of communications who focused his attention as a media critic on film portrayals of Arabs; his exhaustive work provides irrefutable documentation of the creation of the “bad arab” in cinema and lore. He expanded his arguments, first published in TV Arab (1984), in his later book, Reel Bad Arabs (2001 and 2012), offering hundreds of examples of the mindless belly dancer, the veiled seductress, the sword-wielding assassin, the hook-nosed desert nomad, the oil-rich despot. You know them well.

Since the early days of the silent cinema those images remain popular in today’s biggest Hollywood blockbusters. The terrifying Arab was ultimately given a tangible personality in the form of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization). As noted by Rima Najjar writing about the political manipulation of this concept “The pattern of dehumanizing Palestinian Arabs and/or deliberately obscuring their humanity are factors that have facilitated Israel’s project of designating Palestinian resistance movements as terror organizations.”

Although the PLO was distinctly secular and socialist, by the 1980s their image became layered with a religious identity conveniently found in the Gaza-based movement Hamas. As Hamas gained recognition as the image of Palestinian resistance, the threat to Israel was now ‘Islamic terror’.

In 1984 came the highly successful autobiography Not without My Daughter which in 1991 was made into a popular film of the same name starring Sally Fields. Its promotional blurb sums up the storyline thus: “An American woman, trapped in Islamic Iran by her brutish husband, must find a way to escape with her daughter…” Septembers of Shiraz, a 2015 film I plucked at random from my local library only yesterday, assures continuation of filmic exploitation of a ‘revolutionary Iran’ and Islam, and the racist values they perpetuate. We are reminded of our media’s role in this process with a recent admission by the New York Times.

The course by which Islam became such a fearsome concept, effectively manipulated for political purposes primarily through American media is best documented by the outstanding culture critic Edward Said in his 1981 Covering Islam. Even today, with our abundance of so-called experts on Islam, from gadflies to published professors, Covering Islam remains unsurpassed as an analysis of the role of our media in designing a frightening ogre for American consumption, a creation that daily deepens mistrust among peoples and shapes foreign policy. Nothing I have read in these decades of overwhelming attention on Islam supersedes Said’s brilliant, straightforward analysis. Along with Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, it ought to be read and used by every journalism student, every political scientist, every anthropologist, and every Muslim.

Shaheen’s exposé on the role of film in fostering and supporting racism applies to education (sic) about our Native Americans, Black Americans, Asian peoples, even Irish and Italian. Our Black citizens are hard at work using their resources and political savvy to overturn centuries of misrepresentation. Muslims can do it too. We must. Muslim comedians have broken the ground; the next step is to make our own films.

Analysis has its limits; film is a powerful artistic tool that can sweep aside all arguments and misunderstandings. 

 

[ Covering Islam: Post Jack Shaheen ]

Participation Observations in A New Jersey Nursing Home

July 12, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The years when my mother was stricken with dementia—my sister bore the agonizing learning, the burden, and the testament thrust upon the family. So I’ve never felt the bewilderment, stress and agony of supporting a beloved parent--she who had unfailingly represented strength and self-reliance-- that strong, sharp-minded and nurturing woman transformed before our eyes into an exasperating, confused and needy child.

Inevitably however, each of us has to confront dementia-- this now-routine feature of our human evolution. If we are not watching our own identity gradually fragment and escape our soul, then we witness it happening to a close relative or a beloved friend.

Yvonne is one of two dear companions on her way into this matrix.

Like many women and men afflicted by some form of dementia, Yvonne possesses some self-awareness of her haunted status with periods of corresponding lucidity. (Bursts of clarity by Alzheimer's patients are perhaps most perceptively and tenderly documented by the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks; in particular, look for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat and Musicophilia.)

I don’t know if she knows Sacks’ work, but Yvonne has decided she wants to help me, as a writer, record snatches of herself during this moment in her 91-year history. It helps me too: first it prepares me, if anything can, for my march towards this disease; second, Yvonne does this with her characteristic humor and also with uncanny perspicuity, e.g. “I don’t know who I am” (uttered after a troubling episode of daydreams). Thus, as if to escape her sadness and confusion, she welcomes my visits at Vintage Homes (not a completely fictional name), to report her observations-- we can’t call it ‘progress'—to me. 

On each occasion I hear Yvonne's complaint about the morning singsong exercise underway down the hall. Why that annoys her so, I’m uncertain. She likes to sing. But if her neighbors are going to stammer out pre-war songs, she’d rather they be in French; that’s how she learned them when she lived in Dieppe during the war. “’Over here, over there!’ Oooo la la. They tell me these are turn-of-the-century songs. Which century? I ask.”

Well Yvonne, I know how much you like singing. You have friends here. Why not start your own sing-along?

“Yes, but to do that I first have to feel happy.” I know she’s purposefully sardonic and I have no rejoinder.

Yvonne is no activist or reformer. Besides her incessant yearning to go home (“This is a boot camp”), she tolerates her imprisonment here by studying those around her. In the weeks she has lived at Vintage, she’s developed a special compassion for the workers, especially younger staff.

“The workers here: they are young; they are cheerful. I speak in French sometimes with one boy-- maybe he’s from Morocco. All of them seem so lively. Not that new girl, the tall one in red; she was fired. You see, she refused to do her job. I think she was right; because the man who she was in charge of dirtied his pants and she was supposed to wipe his bottom. She refused. C’est son droit. How can she be forced to do that? She has her dignity. Can you blame her? She refused and the head woman fired her. That’s her there by the door; yes, she’s still here because they took her back.

“These helpers are kind, so kind. I respect them. They have to wipe us; front and back too.

“You know there is one girl who goes into the bed with Dorothy, the woman in the room near mine. She cries and cries at bedtime, so the girl herself goes into the bed too, and she holds Dorothy until she’s asleep. Can you imagine? Si touchante.

“We are clean; everything’s clean. The place doesn’t smell; the windows are big. They’re locked, of course. Yes, it is a prison nonetheless. Sans aucun doute. Who are they fooling? No use telling them that I know.

 “‘Oh, it’s not so bad.’ This is what visitors exclaim when they arrive from California to see their grandmother. ‘It’s not so bad’, you say? Well, of course. You don’t have to live here.

“What do they expect?  I think it’s the cloth napkins that really impress them. Clean napkins every meal--likely better than they have in their own home, after all.

 “There’s one woman here who I would like to speak to. I think she’s lesbian. I hear she’s a professor of astronomy, something like that. Speak to her? Me? I don’t know what to say. Anyway, she never speaks. It’s clear she doesn't want to talk to anyone. She just watches. No, I don’t want to talk with her.”

“I remember Bob sometimes.” (Bob was Yvonne’s son who died four years ago.) “And I don’t think he’d be happy, not at all, to see me here. He would never have allowed anyone to move me here.”

One day I arrived at noon and found Yvonne in the dining hall with the three women she shares the lunch table with. Elba insists I should have something to eat with them, assuring me visitors are permitted to join the lunch. So she orders soup for me. Elba and the others are reluctant to begin eating until I’m served, and it’s taking some time because the staff has to first attend to all the regulars. So Clara gives me her bowl, and then Yvonne, feeling badly because I’m her guest gives her soup to Clara. So the soup bowls somehow get shifted around the table. When the server arrives with my bowl she’s visibly upset to find me consuming my soup. She rushes away, returns with a tray and removes all the bowls, even mine. “No; no, every bowl of soup has specific medicine,” she whispers with less annoyance than I’d expect. Yvonne chuckles, “And they think we don’t know what’s going on.

“Yes”, Yvonne declares. “I have lots of time to watch others….

“They fall asleep. That’s what they do. Sleep is the best way to deal with this place.” 

“I don’t want to be with people who are not in this life. Who wants to stay in a place where no one is alive?”

“Of course I want to go out. We are not permitted. And they insist I have to use my cane even here, indoors. They say ‘No. No. We have to watch you. We don't want anything to happen to you Yvonne, do we.’

“What can happen to me? I can only die here, that’s all; that’s why I’m here and not in my home. Are they trying to make me live forever?”

[ Participation Observations in A New Jersey Nursing Home ]
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