I remember my first class across Universities (this is a great advantage when living in a city with several Universities: you get to take courses from each, and they all work together towards your degree). He was a young visiting Professor from Spain, teaching in our nation’s capital for the first time. He had this green air about him, which beamed of complete abandonment to the passion for literature (this is another advantage of taking visiting Professors’ courses, they are super into what they teach, and the fact that they dedicate several months of their careers to share their passion across the globe attests to this). It was my first time at this neighboring University, so I wasn’t sure how to get around. I gave myself plenty of extra time, and read all maps and instructions several times so I wouldn’t be late for this highly anticipated class. I found it. It was, like all foreign language literature courses, in one of the quieter buildings, on the top floor, tucked in a hidden corner of the ghostly arts building. I navigated through the empty hallways, and finally located the classroom, which had just begun. I heard the Professor speaking Spanish, double checked the classroom number on the door and on my registration form, and yes. I was indeed in the right place, right in the nick of time.
I entered the class, without hesitation, scanning the crowded room for an empty seat. Just as I located a free seat on the other side of the classroom, I willfully ignored all stares pointing my way. The Professor being politically correct and not knowing what he was to expect in a Canadian classroom, allowed me time to settle as he continued explaining who he was to the class. I made my way across bags and pulled out chairs, feeling this uneasy air of puzzlement among the students, some probably more puzzled by my presence and insistence on wanting to settle into this class, than by what the Professor was saying. I think he picked up on that and took his cue from them, stopping his self introduction to ask me if I was sure I was in the right class. I made myself comfortable in my seat, took out all my note-taking apparatuses, and said “Yes! I am! This is where I’m supposed to be!,” to make double sure he said, in English, the title of the course and his name, and I confirmed: “Yes, this is it. I’m in the right place, carry on!” And that was it. He continued with his class, no longer wondering what this munaqqaba (a woman who wears a face-veil) was doing in his class, and treating me the way a keen Professor would treat a keen student; with the utmost respect. His course was so inspiring that I ended up writing my thesis on a subject covered by him, and he went on to write me stellar recommendation letters for my doctoral studies. But this is all background information.
What I really wanted to tell you about was the question he asked us all on that very fateful first day of class: why do you love literature? Because you’d have to LOVE literature to go out of your way to learn a completely new language and continue to pursue literary courses, to reach the highest level of graduate courses that are offered in the nation’s capitol (which is the level of course he was teaching). The answers varied anywhere from because it’s beautiful to because it distracts me from daily life and transports me to another world. I personally couldn’t relate to any of those motivating factors. I LOVE the Spanish language, and the literature that was spawned within it is of unmatched beauty, as far as my seven most familiar languages go (I can’t speak for the other hundreds of languages that I’m not familiar with). But I didn’t love literature because it took me away from life, I love it because it gives new meanings to my life, because it expands my horizons, it makes me understand things I might never be able to understand on an intimate level if not through the eyes of a first person narrator, or an omniscient one. It allows for my psychological anchor to be put in places that I wouldn’t bother visiting myself, and thus enriches my way of appreciating my own life, it expands my empathic abilities, and allows me to make room for a more nuanced view of life. Literature isn’t an escape, it’s a means to delve deeper into my own life, my own raison d’etre. My impetus for writing stems from the very same concern.
Why am I saying this? Because I just read a Minimalist blogger’s account of how he made space in his life for what he doesn’t wish to escape from. He wrote this blog in response to the few people who disagree with this statement, basically because they misunderstood its inherent message. He goes on to explain how valuing the people, the time, and the things around you makes life more enjoyable instead of something that you have to contend with in order to be able to get to what you really want (a vacation, a bigger house, a fancy car, financial independence, or whatever other financial or material milestone you set up to achieve). And this is exactly the kind of frame of mind I’ve always had regarding literature. I didn’t get into literature because I couldn’t make it into tougher fields, or because I wanted to dedicate my life to the arts, I went into it because it made my life more meaningful, it made my connections to the rest of the world truer and deeper, and it made me feel more appreciative of the human spirit. The reasons why I got into literature are the very same reasons that have kept me on a Minimalist path for most of my adult life.
When my husband proposed to me, he very matter of factly told me that he thought I’d make a good wife, but when I pressed him on what that meant precisely, he said: “You see life simply” I’m paraphrasing, it was over twenty years ago, but that’s the gist.
Recently I had to part with one of those friends that you just are attracted to like a magnet, in Islam they say that their soul must have been next to you when all souls met up with Allah, before we were assigned bodies, and that’s what we cling to. I sought her out like a moth seeks light, and immediately befriended her. We hit it off right off the bat, and met regularly every chance we got. It was an exciting year, but alas, it was short-lived, as before a year was over she was moving again. We cried, and hugged, and hugged again. She was worried that she wouldn’t find any friends in her new city, but I reassured her that someone is bound to gravitate towards her just like I had. But she stopped me in my tracks: “No, not like you. You are so smart, but you don’t show off and make people feel small.” That surprised me, because although I certainly make a conscious effort to remain humble, I never thought it would mean this much to anyone else, in such a personal way.
Ultimately, I think that our interests, our possessions, our social status all fall under the same category of distractions that make us divert from what I believe should be our focus: our relationships. Covering your face shouldn’t mean you are incapable of appreciating modern Spanish poetry; just like a fancy car or designer clothes shouldn’t preclude kindness to others, to the planet and all its creatures; and our social status shouldn’t prevent us from being able to forge meaningful relationships with people all around us.