Travelling Tales: 9/11 (New York, Day 3)

Today, of course, was 9/11, and a very interesting day to be in New York it was.

I started off fairly unhistorically, meeting Ellie for some absolutely amazing pancakes for brunch in the West Village (lemon pancakes with strawberries and maple syrup: amazing).

Ellie and I then went for a lovely walk down the riverside, dodging cyclists as we atoned for eating so many pancakes. In fact, I took Ellie to the Irish heritage hunger memorial that I visited with Carmel a couple of days ago, which was fun. I noticed something that I hadn’t before, which was that the names of Irish counties and cities were carved into the granite rocks they had scattered around the place. I took photos of a few (especially Clare, for my ma).

We then walked past the World Trade Centre site – or we intended to. The main road that we needed to cross in order to get there was, just as we got to it, the site of a massive, miles-long avalanche of motorcyclists, hundreds and hundreds of them pouring down the streets. I believe it’s a memorial ride in honour of those who died on 9/11, but there were definitely some tensions between them and a guy carrying a ‘build the mosque now’ placard.

There were a lot of demonstrations going on around Ground Zero today, which is why it was so interesting to be there. Not just commemorating the dead, but pro-war on terror and anti-war at all, ‘Grief should not be an excuse for bigotry’ pro-Islamic centre, ‘Jesus loves America’ which was ostensibly honouring the dead and those who gave up their lives, but spent a lot of time shouting about how Jesus made America great and made New York great and how He built America just for us so we should be grateful and love him, which I thought was a shame because it made it a bit contentious (Native Americans?) and sort of detracted from honouring those who died. Politics was everywhere today.

It made me wonder: who’ll be happy if this centre doesn’t go up? Who’ll be happy if it does? And what, if anything, does that say about them?

Here are a few photos of the different rallies:

These are the Christian demonstrators:

And these are the pro-Islamic centre people:

The funniest demonstration was a group of Marxists who were standing by the pro-Islamic centre crowd but criticising all the other demonstrations, saying that everybody else’s demonstrations were a sign of the evil of the capitalist system and how the power should be in… different hands. It was all very Doctor Horrible. I picked up their pamphlet, anyway, just to see what was in it (a lot of Trotsky. Seriously, there’s an ‘Honour Comrade Trotsky’ thing on the second page). Anyway, I thought it would be fun to unleash my Deconstruction Skillz on it, which I intend to do later on.

Anyway, after our encounter with the conspiratorial communists, Ellie and I went to that bastion of Americana, Starbucks, and had tea. We then walked up through various districts of New York, via some japes in jewellery shops trying on lots of bling, through Soho and along the edge of Chinatown, and then we went up to Times Square and broadway (because I’m a really terrible tourist, I’ve only seen the Statue of Liberty from a distance and I’ve been to no other famous NY landmarks). So I took some shiny neon pictures and a nice shot of the Empire State building:

And then we spotted Mickey Mouse on his way home from the office:

And then I came back to New Jersey and went out to dinner with Carmel, her sister Rita, and some of their high school friends who are still in the area, which was a lovely evening. Her sister Rita lived with a couple of the friends for a few years when they were younger, I think, which sounds like it was a pretty lively household. It was a great night, though (and the food was amazing, especially a hand-made spicy guacamole dip that was just incredible).

Wow. Today’s post has been pretty long, but it merited it. It’s getting late now, and I have to get to bed! My legs aren’t so happy with me for making them walk so far today, but hey, I fuelled them with pancakes, so I’m not sure why they’re complaining.

Tomorrow, alas, is my last full day in New York/New Jersey. I’ve had a wonderful time here, and it’s been great to spend time with Carmel and catch up with Ellie. I’m not sure what we have planned for tomorrow, but I’m sure it’ll be amazing fun – though maybe not quite so exciting as guessing at the demonstration that’s going on around the next corner and having a man confess to you that he’s a Trotskyist while he’s trying to talk to you about the underlying problems of the system.

‘One Born Every Minute’: bodies, birth and a bit about the Bible

So tonight I started watching ‘One Born Every Minute’ – the Channel 4 documentary that started showing in February about the reality of a maternity ward. It is an amazing, sensitive, deeply moving programme that follows one or two families a week – in the first episode I watched, which was Episode 7 of Series 1, covered two babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. I realised just what an incredible job the doctors and nurses in maternity wards do, and I genuinely think that the world would be a better place if more people realised how much work goes into maternity hospitals. There are over six billion people on the planet, and each one was given birth to by a woman, a woman probably aided by a team of other people (who are almost always also women), and each birth is difficult and painful and bloody.

Part of the reason that I think it’s a brilliant programme, though, isn’t just that it’s well put-together, or insightful, or moving. It’s that it completely unstitches the myth so deeply embedded in our culture that childbirth is something mystical or magical. Angela Carter, writing in The Sadeian Woman in 1979, called for the “demystification” of the female body – an erasure of the comforting fictions that entrap women and allow their importance in the world to be diminished:

All the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciliatory mother, are consolatory nonsenses […] If a revival of the myths gives women emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life.

The real conditions of life are uncomfortably, bloody and sometimes remarkably grotesque. Menstruation is a monthly suffering for half of the planet’s population, and yet I’ve known men, who are obviously not eligible to experience it, beg to remain ignorant of it as well. Why should this be? Why are women not allowed to talk about their bodies and what they do? I still admire a friend of mine who, in an argument with a male friend, turned around and said, approximately, “You know what? It could be worse: I’m bleeding from my genitals right now.”

In Carter’s words: The truth of the womb is, that it is an organ like any other organ, more useful than the appendix, less useful than the colon but not much use to you at all if you do not wish to utilise its sole function, that of bearing children.

So why is this truth overwritten with layers of mystifying shmaltz about “nature’s gifts” and “being with child” and, worst of all, “she’s stroppy/irritable/miserable/etc because it’s her time of the month”? Why does the world at large still allowed to think such clichéd rubbish about the reproductive systems of half of the human race? It’s like Cixous never wrote Laugh of the Medusa – a text in which she called for women to write their bodies into text. bodies. They’re important. Everybody (no pun intended) is in a body. And ‘One born Every Minute’ shines a gently documentary light onto bodies, and birth, and what it is to be a woman, and it does so without judging and with no agenda other than to show what happens when a child is born.

There is one thing more that ‘One Born Every Minute’ made me think, and I’m struggling to phrase it without looking like I’m some Dawkinsian raving atheist. I’m not an atheist, I’m not a pagan, but I don’t believe in a Christian God, either. I don’t believe in a Christian God because I don’t think that, if a god exists, she/he/it is Christian (or Muslim, Jewish, Hindu…) – if there’s a divine being up there, I’m pretty sure she/he/it doesn’t really mind what we do down here on Earth, so what’s the point in worrying about it? So I don’t really have any beef with God, if it should be the case that there is one. My problem is with religions. Particularly Catholicism (I corrected myself here from “Christianity”), but that’s only because I went to Catholic schools for six years, and familiarity didn’t breed contempt so much as frustration at their sheer backwardsness. I’m not a fan of organised religions because they always seem to settle for the easy option of orthodox dogma and stagnation rather than critical debate.

Watching ‘One Born Every Minute’ I felt very deeply how disgusting it is that the “Good Book” could have enforced the idea that birthing pains are a judgement from God because Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Why should the men who wrote the Bible have launched such a smear campaign against women? I don’t mean to denounce the whole message of Christianity by this, it was just a particular comment from someone recently that sparked this off.

And why should birth be so mystified in this way? It is moving, and intimate, and difficult, and precious, but it’s not mystic or mythical. It is one body sliding from another, in blood and in pain and with very little dignity.

What I like about ‘One Born Every Minute’ is that it shows what childbirth is, and not the fluffy euphemisms we’re used to. It is something that happens to one woman and one baby every minute of every day, and I don’t see why it should be a mystery.