books, stray thoughts
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What are you going through?

post-election reading | edge of evening

I had put dark brackets around the paragraph that began, “The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?'” [Simone] Weil was talking about the Grail quest, about the king afflicted with a terrible wound, experiencing excruciating pain. She was talking about suffering. The Grail was said to belong to the one who is compelled, feels the compassion, knows to ask, and, most importantly, has the courage to ask the king, “What are you going through?” Which seemed a very easy thing to do, but of course this is complicated by those cold and sometimes necessary distances we keep from one another as human beings, by our reservations, by our worries about what might be appropriate, by protocols, by hesitation, by over-interpretation of who the sorrowing suffering Grail king might truly be.

How is one to do this?Rumi and the Red Handbag by Shawna Lemay

I’m a firm believer in the serendipity of reading: that each book finds us when we most need it. Of course, we find what we’re looking for in what we read. Something will stand out in one context that might not in another. But I mean more than that, something more mysterious and alchemical. I mean that sometimes it will truly just be the right moment for that book & you. That the leap you need to take, the thing you need to figure out, the insight you need to know, the understanding that you need to glean, will find you at just the right moment.


This isn’t the blog post I’d started for this week, but it’s hard to write about anything other than Tuesday’s election. We don’t normally sleep with phones within reach, but for the second time this year, we did. Back in June, I woke at around 5 to discover that the unthinkable had happened. This time, I woke later, when the alarm went off at 6, and I already knew that nothing was unthinkable. Still, I refreshed The Guardian home screen again & again, trying to change the news.


The first time I truly felt what it might be like to inhabit the world in a black skin, to be subject every day to what he elsewhere calls “the many microaggressions of American racism” was reading Teju Cole’s novel Open CityIt struck me then that this was a late position to arrive at. A problem of my reading, or of what is published?

I’d read things that had made me feel the horror of slavery, for example, Andrea Levy’s The Long Song set in 19th-century Jamaica, but since this isn’t the 19th-century I had the privilege of believing that this was a historical wrong not something enacted day to day in the 21st century. What else had I read that shifted my perspective? I can only think of ZZ Packer’s short stories (‘Brownies’ is a good example), which do show what it’s like to be African-American, but which I could also identify with so easily being, at the time I first read them, young and female like many of their protagonists.


For a long time I’ve wanted to read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American LyricI finally snuck it into an order for T’s clarinet music last week. It arrived — of course! — on Wednesday morning. It’s luminous in its beauty and anger and pain. Impossible to read without leaving changed. A litany of banal, everyday discrimination, which drop by drop feeds a river of dehumanisation flowing to catastrophe — the abandonment of the inhabitants of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina; violence; murder.

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dyingCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine


Other books this week has made me pick up again: Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss; The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. A reread of Teju Cole’s essay ‘The White-Saviour Industrial Complex’ (collected in Known and Strange Things) from which, this, which is haunting me:

People of color, women, and gays — who now have greater access to the centers of influence that ever before — are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.The White-Saviour Industrial Complex by Teju Cole


Then, a book that has been by my bed, waiting patiently for the right moment for almost a year, Rumi and the Red Handbag by Shawna Lemay. I pulled it out of the stack on Monday evening and last night I read the paragraph that heads this post and it took my breath away. For all I have been doing is reading, which is in a way its own kind of asking, but at a time of such darkness for so many, isn’t enough on its own.

The quote from Simone Weil, “The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?'” is so beautifully complicated by what Lemay calls ‘our worries about what might be appropriate, by protocols, by hesitation’. Who hasn’t felt that hesitation. That to ask might be inappropriate, or that we won’t know how to respond. Let’s ask. Let’s care. Let’s learn. Let’s respond with empathy and love and know that that isn’t enough because the way things are, the way things have been, the way things are going, nothing is enough, but listening and truly hearing must be a place to start.


  1. So much to agree with, to think about. And to be grateful that others are reading and taking to heart. Thanks, Sarah.

  2. Such a beautiful blog…I found you through a couple of “shares”…one being Shawna LeMay…This post was particulary poignent because of these days that we are all traveling through…Reaching out to each other makes perfect sense.

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