Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Expirations of Dictators and the Dreams of Exiles

--I keep thinking about the death of Hugo Chavez and all the Venezuelans I've met who fled his regime.  How do you know when it's safe to go back?

--How do you weigh the love you have for your current life against the yearnings you feel for home?

--But when we leave a place, our very leaving changes the place we leave behind.  Maybe we can never go back, and if we can only realize that fact, we'd be happier--or at least yearn less.

--Of course, if we could simply tell ourselves to yearn less and then obey--wow, wouldn't that be an accomplishment?!!

--Moving to South Florida has made me think differently about exile.  I used to think that people chose to go into exile, but now I know how many ways exile can be forced.

--I used to think that people went into exile in response to brutal governments.  I now know that many of us must go into exile because of families or because of repressive social situations back home.

--It makes me wonder, though, what happens when the situations we felt compelled to flee change.  If you left your conservative town to feel free to be your transgressively gendered self, and now those communities have embraced gay marriage, is it safe to go back?

--Do exiles ever feel safe again?

--When I first moved here and taught at the local community college, I met so many people who had fled the civil wars in Central America--and I met the children of those refugees.  But I've been meeting those people since the 1980's.  Back then, I wanted to be a modern Harriet Tubman, leading those people to safety.  I wanted to live in an intentional community, like Jubilee Partners, and devote my life to that.

--Instead, I went into teaching, to become a different kind of Harriet Tubman.  I know that English teachers are often the gatekeepers.  I know how powerful it is to be the gatekeeper with hospitality, the one who says, "You can do this, and I'm here to show you how."

--Here's one of my many poems that uses Tubman-esque imagery.  It first appeared in the journal The Julia Mango and appears in my second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents:

Uncle Tom’s College

You have bought the American myth, staked
your very life upon it, that a sheepskin
will procure your freedom. But before you can grasp
those precious identity papers, you face
a harrowing trip.

You thought that no one could be as big an ogre
as your Simon Legree of a boss who ogled
you and timed your bathroom breaks.
But now, you discover that some of your college
professors find a perverse joy in preventing
you from continuing on your path to freedom.

You unearth the few lights in the darkness of this Southern
college landscape, the ones who can guide
you through the swamps. You like best the ones who escaped,
just as you hope to do, although you can’t imagine
what enticed them back. You warily trust
the pale-faced conductors of this underground
railroad, even though they can’t possibly
know your torments. You keep the lattice
of your scars well-hidden.

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