Hilary Fannin: How do we live? The answer is not in the laundry

It’s easier to focus one’s frustrations on stain removal than to admit to impotent rage at the world

Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist who was crushed to death while undertaking nonviolent direct action in Palestine. Photograph: Abid Katib/ Getty Images

Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist who was crushed to death while undertaking nonviolent direct action in Palestine. Photograph: Abid Katib/ Getty Images

 

I caught myself getting tetchy and irritated about a coffee stain on the duvet cover, a stain I was entirely responsible for. I could blame the coffee pot, which is heavy and ungainly and looks like a periscope. It’s an “interesting” design and I suspect someone used the word “concept” during its undoubtedly limited production run. However, I was the one who slopped the coffee all over the damn cover, then snarked about the stupid stain like frumpy Mrs Disgruntled from Disgruntledville in an advertisement for bleach-blossom detergent.

The duvet cover is grey and pin-striped. I bought it in the sales in a decorous department store. It’s made of cotton hand-picked on Himalayan hillsides by metrosexual vegans with degrees in environmental studies who never forget their mothers’ birthdays. It’s the kind of cover you’d imagine successful accountants sleeping under, or maybe anaesthetists or orthodontists. I figured that a night beneath it would have me hopping out of bed the following morning with an all-over tan, tightened abs and an innate understanding of how to use the remote control and perform a root canal.

I caught myself on. (“Catch yourself on,” a woman in Donegal said to me recently when I asked her if she was anticipating sun.) Life’s too short to weep over spilled coffee.

It’s easier to focus one’s frustrations on stain removal, I suppose, than to admit to hopeless impotent rage with the state of the shagging world.

It’s probable that my misplaced chagrin was in response to reading (in bed, with the offending coffee and a mugful of bitter amusement) one of Donald Trump’s remarks about winners and losers: “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world, I would say to myself, thinking about the boy from Queens: ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’ ”

Who were these “top women”, wondered Eliot Weinberger, who wrote the Trump piece in the London Review of Books. Margaret Thatcher? Mother Teresa? Simone de Beauvoir?

Recollections of two encounters this summer, with women Donald Trump certainly wasn’t referring to, dragged me out of my creeping domestic vexation and catapulted me out of my rubber-glove rampage.

Early in the summer, at Listowel Writers’ Week, I interviewed the Israeli writer Savyon Liebrecht, who writes eloquently about the emotionally complicated lives of children of Holocaust survivors in Israel. She spoke about feelings of isolation among elderly Holocaust survivors whose bleak history can seem to distance them from the pugnacious modern Israeli state. Speaking with compassion about her Arab neighbours, she asked how any of us can hope to prosper when our neighbours suffer. She also spoke, not just from her own experience of conscription, about the necessity of learning to separate from your children when living in a state of war.

American peace activist
Later this summer I sat in a darkened theatre during Palfest, an arts festival organised by Irish artists in solidarity with the Palestinian people. I listened as an ensemble of actors related the story of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist from Washington who volunteered for the International Solidarity Movement and went to work in Palestine in 2003.

In March that year, she was crushed to death while undertaking nonviolent direct action, protecting the home of a Palestinian family she had been living with from demolition by an Israeli military bulldozer. Days before her death she had emailed her mother to say “the sheer kindness of the people here, coupled with the overwhelming evidence of the wilful destruction of their lives, makes it seem unreal to me”.

Corrie died, not instantly, from massive internal injuries. Within two days of her death, 10 Palestinians had also been killed.

Corrie’s story, her youth and optimism, her dignity and humanity (some might say her naivety), was devastating to witness. The piece ended with real-life video footage of the 10-year-old Rachel Corrie speaking at a fifth-grade press conference on world hunger. “I’m here for other children,” she said. “I’m here because I care.”

When the house lights came up that night, and a numbed audience shuffled around, heads bent, looking for their umbrellas (it was summer after all), I found myself sitting next to a poet I greatly admire.

“What do we do?” I asked her. “How do we live?”

“As best we can,” she answered. “With as much kindness as possible.”

How do we live? I don’t know. One thing’s for certain, though: the answer doesn’t lie in laundry detergent, no matter how compelling its manufactured scent.

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