Thursday, May 18, 2006

Walking by Moonlight

Since I reached adulthood, night-time has always been my time. The time when - for better or worse - the city belongs to me. Whatever city I've happened to be living in.

It's rare for a woman to feel that kind of freedom. So I've been trying to puzzle out how I came to be that anomalous. And what that anomaly means and what it doesn't mean.

"Don't you walk home from there by yourself."
"If you're staying late, make sure you call for a cab."
"Do you really think you should go there alone?"
"Stick to the main paths if you go walking in that park by yourself, there's too many places where someone could grab you"
"You're brave, setting off by yourself like that! Aren't you scared of what might happen to you?"
"What do you think you're doing, letting her walk home in the dark by herself. You should have gone and picked her up."
"It's best not to go if you're not sure. Better safe than sorry."
"Will you be alright, going off by yourself like that?"
"It's her own fault, what did she think she was doing walking around on the streets at two in the morning?"
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

I've never been on a `Take Back the Night' March. I don't need to: I took back the night when I was 18 and I've been taking it back ever since. Truth and falsehood, all in the same sentence.

When I was 18, I moved into my first flat - a four person, two-bedroom flat in a somewhat dodgy neighbourhood, with very dodgy plumbing, dodgy perpetual scaffolding and a dodgy landlord who gave new meaning to the word. I loved my life there. It was full of complications, tensions, drama, angst, moral dilemmas, intrigues and decadent parties (which in due course inevitably led to complications, tensions, drama angst, moral dilemmas - etc). I remember it as a time of exhilarating freedom: that year Spring held such promise. The sun was never warmer.

And I'll always be grateful to that flat because it taught me about the impossibility of following the rules about sensible women and freedom of movement.

Sensible women aren't supposed to walk around alone at night. If they have to walk somewhere, they arrange to go with friends, or catch a taxi, or drive, or get picked up. If they can't do that, they curtail their lives. They don't walk into town to meet a friend for coffee, or stay late to study at the library, or work late at the lab because they're so absorbed in what they're doing, or stay as late as they want to at that party, or pop down to the late night store to pick up fresh milk for the morning, since they realised they used the last of it in their coffee. They prune their lives to stay within the borders. Their every move is planned. They follow advice like this that

"The best advice about walking around late at night for females is don't bother - unless you are accompanied by friends."

And - and this is the tricky bit - they are supposed to act as though this curtailment of their freedom was acceptable. As though it did not cause them pain or diminishment.

My flat was a 20 minute walk from the town centre and about an hour by foot to the university. In Christchurch it's dark by 5:30 in winter. I had lectures that didn't end until then. And I had other things to do - pupils to be tutored, friends to hang out with, meetings to attend, parties to go to. And I had no money for taxis. I didn't want to prune my life of the things that made it precious to me. So I didn't.

Instead, I stopped being a sensible woman and slowly, tentatively -- and yes, fearfully - started getting to know the city by moonlight.

I learned which places stayed open late.
I discovered that you can see better under amber streetlights than white streetlights.
I learned how to look into shadows, how to hear what was going on around me.
I learned to combine attentiveness and reflection - to be simultaneously alert and lost in my own night-dream.
I found that less people are out walking on cold crisp nights when your breath hangs in the air.
I listened to the hum of the pylons out near the bypass and the scuffle of rabbits at its base.
I smelt the cold mist rising off the river, wrapping itself about me
I heard the wind in the pines in the park, made louder by darkness
I saw the moon riding the clouds.
I walked to the beginning of the Port Hills and smelled fresh roses by night.
I stopped to greet cats standing sentry on gateposts

And what began as simple defiance borne of necessity slowly became one of the richest pleasures of my life.

Near misses? Lucky escapes? Yes. A couple. Someone grabbed me in Cathedral Square once. But he was drunk. I wasn't. And there were still a fair number of people around. Much more frightening was the morning I opened the paper to find that someone had been sexually attacked in a park about twenty minutes after I'd walked that same route. But I'm one of those who believes the factoid that women are more likely to be assaulted by someone they know than by a stranger.

Sounds all rosy doesn't it? Just being strong and feisty and independent is obviously the solution! Women just need to follow my glorious example (shakes head and gets off high horse)

Alas, my beloved Samuel R. Delany pointed out the catch in his Tales of Neveryon (sadly missing its umlaut). It's one I'd suspected, though I'd not ever managed to articulate it until he did it for me.

"`Norema,' Madame Keyne said, when they had seated themselves behind the frayed drapery of a particularly glum red and black weave (and before they had let themselves become too annoyed that, after having been seated for five whole minutes, the waiter, who was joking with three men in the front, had not yet served them), `something intrigues me - if you'll allow me to harp on a subject. Now you hail from the Ulvayns. There, or so the stories that come to Kolhari would have it, we hear of nothing except the women who captain those fishing boats like men. We doubtless idealize your freedom, here in the midst of civilization's repressive toils. Nevertheless, I know that were we sitting outside, and some man did importune us, you would not be that bothered . . .?'
`Nor,' said Norema, `am I particularly annoyed by sitting here in our alcove.' Then she pulled her hands back into her lap and her serious expression for a moment became a frown. `I would be annoyed by the bothersome men; and I could ignore the simply trivial ones - which I suspect would be most of those that actually approached us, Madame Keyne.'
`But for you to ignore, for you to not be bothered, there must be one of two explanations. And, my dear, I am not sure which of them applies. Either you are so content, so superior to me as a woman, so sure of yourself - thanks to your far better upbringing in a far better land than this - that you truly are above such annoyances, such bothers: which means that art, economics, philosophy, and adventures are not in the least closed to you, but are things you can explore from behind the drapes of our alcove just as easily as you might explore them out in the sun and air. But the other explanation is this: to avoid being bothered, to avoid being annoyed, you have shut down one whole section of your mind, that most sensitive section, the section that responds to even the faintest ugliness precisely because it is what also responds to the faintest nuance of sensible or logical beauty - you must shut it down tight, board it up, and hide the key. And Norema, if this is what we must do to ourselves to "enjoy" our seat in the sun, then we sit in the shadow not as explorers after art or adventure, but as self-maimed cripples. For those store-chambers of the mind are not opened up and shut down so easily as all that - that is one of the things I have learned in fifty years."

Well, I'm not the first kind of woman.

I know about walking alone at night, through silent city streets, wandering out near the industrial estates where the rabbits are surprised to see anybody about, walking in despair through the dangerous parts of town until the numbness recedes a little, home from parties, under a full moon near the foot of the Port Hills, by the Huron River on a cold, clammy Spring night, past the `massage parlours' to Caffiends where coffee and friends await at 2a.m., through Hagley Park at midnight with a friend in full gothed-up glory assuring me with slightly nervous bravado that "We've nothing to worry about. The only people who walk through Hagley Park at night are people like us." I've seen Manchester's uneasy slumber, stumbled half-asleep to the station in Hyde to catch that pre-dawn bus so I can make my train.

Always - except for the third item on my little list (for in truth at those times I do not care) with that edge of fear. Sometimes slight, sometimes not so slight.

At night, the city belongs to me. There's truth in that. And I know about walking alone by moonlight in all kinds of places. But I don't know about walking alone and unafraid. And so Delany might well say that there are sections of my mind that I've boarded up tight and hidden the key. How else can you be enjoying a stroll by the river after dusk and simultaneously be staring into shadows?

And so, fifteen years on into my nocturnal peregrinations,

"I'm waiting for the night to fall
when everything is bearable
and there in the still
all that you feel is tranquillity."


Tacky, tacky, tacky. That's what this excess of reposting old diaries is. My apologies. I'm still wrestling with the 'Instead of 'Let's Talk About Alex'' post, which has -- as I suspected it might after I spent that informative evening re-reading the cartoon diaries -- has inexorably become a 'goodbye' diary. To quote Gaiman once more, "Certain conclusions become inescapable." Despite my nature, I'm doing my best to keep from being vicious -- let's hope I don't completely fail, because although individuals are inescapably responsible for their actions, it is also true that (in the words of Dire Straits who surely stand falsely accused of being MOR) the dice were loaded from the start. Structure, like language, matters.

But I also have a different, giddier, excuse for this one. After 2 and 3/4 years of having no means to listen to music (except in that inadvertant 'it was on TMF' kind of way), I now have a CD player. Which means I can listen to Depeche Mode (which is the sort of appropos bit since I felt free to take Martin Gore's words in vain here). And Shriekback. And Sioushie and the Banshees . And Sisters of Mercy . And The The . All of whom -- if (as I strongly suspect) he has not yet got lying on the rack next to the Kiri Te Kanawa CDs -- my beloved honorary ancestor should promptly dispatch a descendant to the nearest decent second-hand CD shop with instructions to purchase. For make no mistake: these are among the Dunstables of our day, but unlike his, their ends are not those of Empire.

To which I shall add (with youthful arrogance) the remark that if one had read Delany, one would be unable to forget him. Therefore I surmise that one has not and therefore the descendent should also make a detour by the nearest decent bookstore. As should anyone else who hasn't read him yet.


Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

I have not read Delany, but I like Depeche Mode, and I liked that first Shriekback album, Oil and Gold, I think it was.

There are places in some US cities where no woman or man or drag queen should walk alone, at night, and some where none of the above should walk by day, regardless of whether they have closed off corners of their minds, feel superior and content due to reasons of well-readhood, eyeliner, or both.

Increasingly, there are places in some US cities, and more of them in US towns and hamlets, where some people should not walk alone, and some where some people should not walk in groups.

This has more to do with the long-gone state of whatever loose and airy mesh of social fabric ever existed there than the state of mind of the walker.

I wrote a good-bye diary of sorts today, not the posted kind with a link, but the kind that is best described by an author whose name escapes me, in a book whose name I can't recall. In fact, I can't recall anything about the book except the one snippet: that the heroine, who had, I believe been involved in one of those ill-fated and ill-advised relationships that one finds in books and the conversations of far too many ladies, I am sad to say. Anyway, he said or did, or failed to say or do, something, and inside her heart, "something fell off the shelf."

That happened to me today, as I sat for a few minutes and watched several people tie themselves in all kinds of knots in their zeal, their desperate need, to justify the sort of commonplace atrocity of which they have been part for years. Apparently there was a security breach of some kind, and some US corporate media entity slipped through the cracks, and Washington, for whatever reasons of psy-ops, cognitive dissonance, trial balloon, irrelevant to those who loved the victims, as is always the case. And so there was such a flurry, such a sad and tragic and despicable flurry of our poor boys and I would have done the same and stress relief, etc, that in my heart, something fell off the shelf, and whether I "post" anything at that site again, or whether I don't, does not matter. Because it does not matter.

It is not, as I realize it sounds, that I am insensitive to the sturm und drang of their inner conflict, their anguished dilemmas. I fully comprehend that that's how girls like Lynndie was raised, and appreciate the cultural context. But at the same time, I have my own cultural context, I suppose, and I keep remembering the words of the young Latin American woman who was raised in the US, telling of returning to her birthplace, and discussing the subject of women, "gender issues," I guess you could say, with her male cousins, and realizing, as she put it, that "there is a limit to the conversation that can be had with someone who believes you should be property as strongly and as unshakably as you believe they should not be."

And I understand that cultural change is slow, the slowest of all changes, and that makes me wonder again about that Miep Gies gene discussion, and evolution, maybe cultural change is evolution, in its way, and not everyone is a mutant, and I regret that deeply. But something fell off the shelf. Because my cultural context notwithstanding, I am a human being, and at no time in my life have I had the capacity to view any other human being as less.

So esteemed honorary great-granddaughter, it is my duty to tell you that yes, there are places that you should not walk at night, or in the day, in order to show your sensitivity to certain cultural contexts.

5/19/2006 3:38 am  
Blogger dove said...


I'll have to delay writing substantively until later today, but yes.

5/19/2006 11:47 am  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

I'm not much for GBCW pieces, but I have increasingly felt that for me, posting on certain blogs is neither appropriate nor courteous.

You have inspired me to update my blog.

5/19/2006 7:14 pm  
Blogger Man Eegee said...

I yearn for an age when humanity will spend a speck of its energy to seek common ground rather than the easy path of bubble worship. I am enriched by everything I read, whether it enlightens or enrages me. The greatest thinkers in the world suffered continual earthquakes of the soul, they were able to meander through the traveses of the human psyche by challenge and dissonance.

Thanks to you all for helping me go deeper by every word you write.

5/19/2006 7:47 pm  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

Whoa, Manito, and you accused ME of being poetic! Well, backatcha :)

Sometimes one of the most difficult things, for those of us who are in favor of seeking common ground, is to learn to recognize and accept that it is not always to be found.

Ms. Lawless of the Border Guardians, for example, and a young woman recently arrived from Oaxaca, hoping to obtain employment in a restaurant kitchen that will enable her to buy frijoles for her little sons, whose hair has already begun to take on the characteristic rusty cast of malnutrition, are unlikely to find common ground, even if they were obliged to sit down face to face, or across the cyber-miles, keyboard to keyboard and seek it.

The same can be said of the young lady I quoted in my blogrant, who tried, and failed, to find common ground with her own cousins, her own blood.

We cannot say that it never happens that you, and the man with the gun at your temple, or the shackles poised to clamp round your feet, might find common ground. Anything is possible, and so it could conceivably happen that should he happen to look into your eyes, he just might see something there that he recognizes as humanity, however, were he possessed of even a modest amount of that quality his ownself, the chance that he would be wielding either musket or shackles is to say the least, unlikely.

And even should that occur, it is more probable that the shock of the thing will be unprocessable, and he is more apt to become enraged at what he will perceive as your deliberate uppitiness, even sorcery, and shoot you quicker, and drive the shackles tighter, out of sheer terror.

Thus, the search for common ground must ever be tempered with a sense of, for want of a better word, propriety, especially by those of us who, in certain circumstances, simply by our existence, and certainly through no wish of our own, already strike fear enough into the hearts of those with whom we would seek that common ground.

In such a situation, do we not risk doing more harm than good? if instead of seeking, and finding the best of both ourselves and he who wishes us dead, instead we bring out the worst in him, and upon ourselves bring the burden of perhaps having stopped him from ever crossing the rapids, by our well-intentioned extension of what proves to be a hand too frightening for him to clasp?

When left alone, perhaps he would cross it himself, we thought we saw him dip in a toe, we are sure we did, but how quickly and in what horror he drew it back!

So I suppose propriety is the best word to use after all.

Some gaps are unbridgable.

5/19/2006 10:58 pm  
Blogger dove said...

I'm sorry DTF -- I still owe you a substantive response. I saw the update. You ascribe more to me than I have deserved.

"If I assert that your brother has disobeyed me, and destroy his home and kill his family, and you oppose my actions on the grounds that he did not in fact disobey me..."

Here is the crux of it. Or a crux of it, anyway.

I'm glad you like Depeche Mode. And I'm sorry for the presumption that you might not have heard them. I've been listening to Big Night Music but I need to renew my acquaintance with Oil and Gold

5/20/2006 3:31 am  
Blogger Nanette said...

I've been thinking a lot about common ground today... sort of working my way up to writing something, hopefully. Me, I think we are seeking it in the wrong places. Sort of. Or maybe it's just that it's the wrong ground. Hmmm.

Manny, poetic indeed. And thought provoking.

Ductape, "something fell off the shelf" describes things perfectly. I read your rant on your blog... I have little brain left after this week, but over the weekend I want to comment on it.

5/20/2006 4:56 am  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

It is the crux, and it is a phrase at which Alex will gaze, a slightly puzzled frown, and talk about the lies about Saddam's WMD, and ask if I mean I think he had some.

File not found. :)

The name big night music rings no bells. My popular music knowledge is rather spotty, and as you would be correct in presuming, somewhat descendant-dependent. When I hear them playing something I like, I get the appropriate lenses and read the label, or ask its name.

The Shriekback song I like is something about fire and desire and the light from you, that's all I remember from the lyrics, but it has a very catchy tune.

And another one about everything that rises must converge, I think that is on the same album. CD. I have been instructed that it is no longer correct to use the term "album."

Music for the Masses is the Depeche Mode one I like the best, I liked Black Celebration a lot too. Of course nowadays that is considered to be "old timey music" by the younger descendants. they like Fi'ty Cent. :) I like Nelly better, and whoever it is who sings the one about Keisha, Sharonda, MO-neek! Old people are always going to like the old timey songs I guess. ;)

5/20/2006 5:00 am  
Blogger dove said...

(grin) I've got a draft diary called "Everything that Rises Must Convergence" waiting to be finished at the moment. I should get on with it.

Violator is my favourite Depeche Mode album. They have a kind of minimalist restraint that I find quite powerful.

Anyway, if you like those two, I suspect that The The might also be to your liking.

5/20/2006 11:42 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home