It was sometime early on in one of the first sessions of TEDWomen last week that the question occurred to me: are we saying to each other here – in this go go women go celebration of everything that women can do – that women are the new men? And if that’s the case, is the corollary that men are the new women? Or that less-advantaged women are the new (and old) women? Whither women qua women, if women are trying to escape themselves?
In September, while I was in Lesotho, I received this email:
I’m a frequent peruser of your blog but haven’t had much time for blog reading lately. My husband and I have been working our asses off to get the paperwork together to adopt two little boys from Lesotho. I was amazed when I clicked on your blog this morning and saw where you were. We’ve not seen our sons faces yet. We heard about two little boys (one who is HIV positive, one who has vision issues, both under the age of 3), knew they were ours even though it’s foolish, and started working on getting all the paperwork together. My fool heart hopes that one of the children you’ll take a picture of will be one of my boys because I’m aching to know their faces, but I know that’s unlikely. Still, I hope.
When my sister was very young, she appointed herself my protector. It didn’t matter that she was two years younger: I was a shy, ashmatic child, gangling of limb and totally lacking in physical grace, whereas she was athletic and boisterous and tending toward ferociousness, and those qualities more than made up for our age difference in confrontations with bullies. If somebody teased me, she’d be right there, waving chubby fists and hollering profanities (where she learned them – raised, as she was, in the bosom of a very Catholic family – my parents were never able to figure out) and daring, daring, whoever it was that had the temerity to confront her sister to take on her as well. And there we’d stand, together: me, tall and awkward, blushing and stammering and willing myself to disappear, and her, chubby and gap-toothed, stomping and yelling and demanding our antagonists to BRING IT, and although it was sort of embarrassing to me – having my little sister stick up for me – I was also always grateful, and proud.
Last week, Emilia went to school in a Snow White costume. She wore it with striped leggings and her hot pink skate shoes, the ones with the sparkly laces, and also a baseball cap. “I’m not really a princess, Mommy,” she informed me, “I’m just pretending to be one, because I like this dress.” Which summarizes her approach to fashion more or less perfectly: the determining factor, for Emilia, in selecting any article of clothing – shirt, pants, shoes, underpants – is simply “I just like it.” How things fit, whether or not they match, whether or not they are in season: these considerations are irrelevant. All that matters, to Emilia, is whether or not each individual item of clothing appeals to Emilia’s unique and ever-changing tastes, and whether the resulting outfit reflects to her, as she puts it, her “own self.”
This is Emilia, then, as her “own self” (Sporty Pretend Princess Edition):
I’ve been home, now, for a few of days, and I think – I think – that I’ve recovered from travel fatigue – 28 hours it took me to get home from Lesotho – and jet-lag and the brain fog that comes from traveling halfway around the world and back in less than a week. But I haven’t quite recovered from what I can only describe as soul-lag: the existential exhaustion that settles upon you when you’ve experienced something that changes you so profoundly that your psyche has trouble catching up to your transformed heart and soul.
I have soul lag. It’s getting in the way of writing anything meaningful or informative about everything that I saw, everything that I learned, everything that changed me last week. It’s clouding my mind and tangling my thoughts and every time that I sit down to write I am faced with a screen that demands, now, something better than before, something worthy of the stories that I heard and the stories that I was part of, and as I stare at that screen something inside me sags and crumples. I tell myself that it will all come, in time, as my heart and soul and psyche reconcile themselves to each other and to the clock of my here and now, and as I find the words to do those stories justice, but my self is not entirely convinced. My self is also not a very good listener, but that’s not really the problem here.
I met her at what the Global Fund calls an ‘OVC House,’ or home for orphaned and vulnerable children, although in this specific case it was actually a residential school for visually-impaired children who have been orphaned or otherwise made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS, all of which is to say that it is not a place where you expect to do a lot of giggling. But I did giggle, a lot, because this young woman and her friends followed me around, giggling, and giggling, as it happens, is infectious, whether you’re in Lesotho with blind orphans or anywhere else in the world.
They stuck close to me, these girls, as I took pictures, following me around, asking me again and again to take their photo, posing and giggling behind cupped hands, squealing cheese! every time that I pointed the camera in their direction. They were sweet and they were funny and it was impossible, in their presence, to not share their laughter, which was wonderful, because, as I said: homes for blind orphans who’ve lost their families or been abandoned by their families because of HIV/AIDS are not places where you expect to do a lot of laughing. I was grateful for the laughing.
And I did laugh. I laughed a lot. I laughed when she asked me if I liked Beyonce (sure I do, I said, as I waggled my hand and warbled “all the single ladies, all the single ladies!” while they collapsed in fits of giggles.) She wanted to pose like Beyonce, she told me, and she wanted to sing like Beyonce and just as I was about to tell her that her poses put Beyonce’s to shame, she burst into the sweetest rendition of ‘Halo’ that I’d ever heard. At which point my smile became drenched by tears, and – and I know this sounds terrible – I was grateful that she and her friends could not see well enough to register that I was crying.
I asked if I could record her. She said yes.