life goes on within us and without us
You can kill birds. But you can’t kill all birds.
I have started writing this issue many times, in many different moods, and with uniformly disappointing results. Whenever I reread what I’ve written, I see there is no way I can send such disjointed, inappropriate, maudlin, not maudlin enough, one-sided, too-many-sided musings out into the world. You are probably being overwhelmed by points of view just as I am. You are teetering between your own constantly changing states of mind. You are feeling connected and disconnected, close to your heart and far away, back and forth, on again, off again, just as I am. Why should I add to the deluge? I think the answer is simple: I want to take part.
My hopes and expectations for this issue can never be met. I want to strike just the right balance between horror and hope, sorrow and inspiration, with just the right tone—not too heavy, not too light, juuuust right. You’ll note that the word “right” keeps popping up. My way of dealing with most things is to figure out what’s “right” and then plant my flag, so to speak, there. That was a lot easier to do when I was younger, I’ll tell you. Or maybe it’s the nature of what happened, the complexity of an enemy without a face—or with one face that we’ve demonized so we can think there’s a clear target. Regardless of the terrorists’ extreme methods, they do reflect the feelings of a certain segment of the world’s population. “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”
Sometimes it has felt as if there is just too much to take in—too much sorrow, too much suffering, even too much beauty. I can’t watch the crying firemen anymore, or hear the beautiful stories of sacrifice and love. The tireless rescue effort, the photos of loved ones. The two people who jumped from one of the towers hand in hand. The immense grief, the immense generosity, the immense compassion. My heart resists the workout it’s getting. My brain, too. Every time I turn on the TV or read the newspaper, there’s new input to consider, new tragedies, new strategies, new acts of heroism, new acts of scapegoating, new warnings that we have entered a new world in this new millennium. I am tired of the new.
I see us all creating narratives out of what happened, as if we’re little kids wanting a goodnight moon story before bed. And maybe, at heart, we are. Some people have fashioned a scenario of how Flight 93 went down; it’s just a story, but we have powerful incentives to believe it. In our minds, we’ve already cast the movie—Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, ordinary/extraordinary guys who heroically band together to bring the plane down to save the lives of their fellow Americans.
Other people are trying to “decode the message” sent by the hijackers—September 11 is 9/11, get it?, and two of the flight numbers are eerily close to the latitude of lower Manhattan. I told Peggy about this, and she said, “I think we got the message.”
Everything I read and see gives me a different perspective and wipes out the one I had five minutes ago. My spine unwillingly tingles when I hear “God Bless America.” Some part of me responds to the fist-shaking of G.W. Bush and despairs of the “give peace a chance” crowd who don’t seem to have both feet in reality. But another part of me—the legacy of the ‘60s—will probably never be able to fully embrace the American flag. Too much horror has been perpetrated in its name. Bush’s disingenuous use of the term “bully” to refer to the terrorists strikes me as ludicrously inaccurate. If the U.S. is Goliath, which by all accounts it is, then the stone that David throws at us is not the act of a bully, it is the act—no matter how misguided—of an underdog who sees no other way to bring the giant down. We Americans should understand this better than anyone, we the proud historians of our own revolutionary beginnings. But I suppose that is one of the lessons, that the underdog grows up to be the top dog and adopts the posture of top dogs everywhere: We’ll do what we want—because we can. And those of us who live in the top dog’s kennel (am I getting carried away with my dog metaphor?) have been so complacent, so entitled as “Americans—leaders of the free world.” Like we really deserve all our riches.
I wrote the following to Terry late in the first week:
My feelings and thoughts are all over the map. Mostly there’s just a disconnect and confusion, dotted with moments of anger—no fear, though, strangely. Alternately heart-open and heart-closed, for no apparent reason. Going grocery shopping, I’m half extra-kind and compassionate, and half irritated if anyone gets in my way…. It feels like the best of times and the worst of times. Yes, the best of times. It truly does feel as if good could come of this, though it’s often only temporarily that people realize the preciousness of life and have good will toward their fellow humans. I keep being surprised and not surprised and angry and not angry. I am not about to start flying the American flag. Is that a vestige of my misguided youth, or is it good to keep a level head and not dive right into rabid nationalism? Confused, confused, confused…. I read the widely circulated Canadian journalist’s defense of America (which was written in 1973, by the way, not this week) and I think, yeah, we always help out other countries, rah rah for us, and then I think about all the havoc we’ve wreaked in the world in the name of patriotic zeal and anticommunism—defending our oil interests, making alliances with dictators; we’ve been on the wrong side so often. And now I’m identifying with this “we”? Who are “we”? I’m impatient with both the left and the right, with any politics at all, though I know it must come down to that….
Intermittently, I stop thinking and just let myself watch and feel. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” choking back tears as he describes the former view from his apartment—the World Trade Center—and the view he has now—the Statue of Liberty. Dan Rather crying on David Letterman’s show—not discreet, manly tears but a crumbling of his stern newsman face. I’ve never seen so many men cry.
And then my brain takes over again. Dan Rather asserts that this “war” is not a clash between cultures, between religions, or between wealth and poverty—it’s about good and evil. They hate us for no reason. They just want us dead. And so I lose my previous (five minutes ago) certainty and start questioning again.
My questions chase their own tails.
Dust settles, mind does not.
—headline over Joan Ryan’s column in the Chronicle
It’s unreal. It’s scary. I can forget it; I can’t forget it.
—my friend E in Washington, D.C.
I thought about writing this issue as a series of journal entries so I could focus on what I was thinking and feeling on a given day. But I realized that the entries would have to be constantly updated:
9:05 a.m.—Heart touched by the plight of Afghani refugees fleeing their country in advance of war.
9:10—Anger at people who think they’re the only real Americans because they came here from lighter-skinned parts of the world.
9:15—Grateful for national leaders who emphasize that Arab Americans are—hello!—Americans. At least we’re getting a much-needed education in Islam.
9:30—Anger at headline, “Falwell says U.S. has lost God’s protection because of spiritual void.” Is he HIGH?
10:05—Heart touched by hug from my favorite grocery store clerk.
10:40—Irritated by “violence only leads to violence” argument.
11:15—Fearful of “violence is the only thing they understand” argument.
11:20—Feel I have to choose one argument over the other. Can’t.
11:30—Horrified by images I can’t get out of my head—scads of shoes on the ground from falling bodies. [2009 update: A TV ad (for shoes, I guess) has shoes falling all over a city street, and I gasp: Did the imagery not ring a bell for anyone at the ad agency?]
11:42—Moved by stories of firemen’s heroism and self-deprecation (“just doing our job”).
12:05 p.m.—Up to here with images of wistful beauty and elegiac sadness.
2:10—Sick that this happened after Bush became president.
2:15—Wondering if Bush could be the right man for the job after all—can’t see Al Gore doing much for the national morale.
2:20—Friend I say this to writes it off to shock.
2:21—Realize she’s right.
And so on.
Some of you know that I put the mary’zine on hold this summer because of an unintended side effect of taking Zoloft, the anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, anti-obsessive-compulsive-disorder medication that I have come to know and love (and just in time). No one could have been more surprised than I that I lost the desire to sit on some literary observation deck above my life and describe its ins and outs, its ups and downs, in witty or soulful terms for the edification of dozens. My “new self” no longer felt it had to justify its existence by writing or publishing.
But that was one of the few down sides, and I was willing to give up the ‘zine if I had to, because Zoloft rocked my world. Or I should say, it steadied it. It was as if my brain, body, and soul—victim(s) of brain chemistry or life experience or unexplained personality defects—soaked up this neuron-connecting drug like a parched begonia, leaving me calmer, less self-conscious, less afraid of what other people think of me, less judgmental of others, content to do the little tasks that are required to maintain a household. I first noticed the drug was working when I realized, to my amazement, that I was perfectly happy to be sitting on a stool out on my patio in the morning sunshine washing and laying out on a blanket approximately 5,000 separate sand tray items that hadn’t been dusted in years, from skulls to plastic hearts to spiders and beyond. I had a sublime moment of realizing that there was nowhere to get, nothing to achieve—that doing this task mattered more than finishing it. At last, I knew what it meant to be “in my body” and to simply be without the usual internal litany of “I’d rather be [reading, sleeping, eating]” (not necessarily in that order).
And then the Events of September 11 happened (“Event” is my chosen euphemism, a good substitute, I think, for “first war of the new millennium”). It’s a cliché, but my foundation felt shaken, like after the 1989 earthquake. After a couple days of total shock and media overload, I e-mailed Diane, saying in part,
… by turns I’m a prickly pear and a dish of mush and an unconcerned Zoloftian and a selfish Bay Arean who doesn’t know anyone directly involved and was damn glad to know that you, my chick-a-dee-dee, were driving and not flying on the fateful day.
In her reply, Diane suggested that I had the beginnings of the next issue of the ‘zine. So she was the first to put the bug in my ear, the bee in my bonnet, the ants in my pants to get the ‘zine back on track. I began to hear the call of the blank computer screen, even as I wondered what I could possibly add that would be of value to a world already saturated with expressions of grief, loss, anger, and love.
All week, I kept hearing people in the media talk about how in times of tragedy, everyone instinctively reaches out to make contact with their loved ones. I sat here alone in my home office, editing yet another book about microbes, wondering why my loved ones weren’t reaching out to me. Of course, I wasn’t reaching out to them, either. But I did turn on the ringer on my phone, way up to 4 rings, which is huge for me—to dare to answer the phone without knowing who is there. Eventually, some of my loved ones did reach out, and I want to thank Kerry, Sissypuss, Diane, Terry, and Kate for calling or e-mailing during the freshness and rawness of that first awful week.
A week after the Events, Rob Morse wrote in the Chronicle,
Last week we were slammed over and over again with the most horrendous reality TV of all time. Then the electronic media decided to censor anything that could conceivably trigger memories of the violence they had broadcast.
Some radio stations were dropping any song that referred to airplanes, plus REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” But besides the contradiction Rob Morse pointed out, protecting us from reminders is a hopeless cause. Most popular songs are about love or loss, so there’s no way to avoid thinking about our own vulnerability. Just being alive is a reminder.
With predictable timing, the pundits began telling us to try to get back to normal. For once, they were right. I felt palpably relieved whenever I turned off the TV and stepped outside to breathe the fragrant, cool air, or when I listened to the blue jay splashing away in the bird bath on the patio. It was good to be reminded of the natural world. Laughing with a friend on the phone eased my heart and soothed my nerves. Going out to dinner at the Lark Creek Inn to celebrate a friend’s birthday felt alternately like a relief and a guilty pleasure. After we ordered dinner, the waitress informed us that there were candles out front in case we wanted to go outside for the national moment of silence at 7 p.m. We didn’t. We had had our fill—one friend had already sung two “Amazing Grace”s and had two moments of silence at the school where she works. It seemed more important right then to be sitting at a table together, waiting for our petrale sole and our heirloom tomato salad and our butterscotch pudding to arrive, talking of little things and big Events and laughing when we could.
My goddaughter Kelly, age 25, was having dinner with us. I told her I might not be writing the ‘zine anymore. She said I couldn’t stop now. Why? “Because you haven’t written about me yet!” So I teased her that I was going to dig up some embarrassing stories from her childhood. She mentioned the time she peed in my bed, which I don’t even remember. But Peggy said to her, “No, she’s going to write about your saying you want her to write about you.” The woman knows me, I must say.
This year I’ve been struck by the fact that Kelly is the same age I was when I met Peggy 30 years ago. Let’s have a moment of eerie silence to contemplate that horrific number. (“Eerie silence” and “horrific” were the terms we decided we were most tired of hearing in the wake of the Events.) Even though my political agenda back then was quite different from hers (she’s an ardent environmentalist, health-foodist, bike rider), I feel the connection of having been, like her, an idealistic young person with a desire to create change.
But what’s also fascinating to me, beyond seeing the similarities and differences between our life paths, is that contemplating her young life puts my middle-age-hood in perspective. It’s interesting to see some of the ancient truisms coming, in fact, true—such as the one that says the older you get, the more you realize you don’t know. That’s not as frightening as it may sound. It even makes life more interesting and less depressing—there is more to learn, more windows of opportunity, more ports in a storm, more facets of every diamond in the rough, more complexity and more grace. More ability to change, rather than less, which is what I used to think. So to all those who fear growing older—you won’t know the benefits until you get here.
In the newspaper the other day, there was a photograph of Ukrainian Americans in Golden Gate Park celebrating the 10th anniversary of Ukrainian independence. One of the women in the photograph leaped out at me. (Not literally—I have not completely lost touch with reality.) Sturdy and rather grim-(or determined-)looking, as if she’d seen it all and then some, she reminded me of my Danish peasant grandmother. Wrapped in a warm coat, her purse on her lap, she held a small American flag. And in that moment I got it about the flag. How it’s the immigrants from poor or war-torn countries who carry the American dream forward, who claim the flag as their own, who consecrate it rather than embarrass it. She wasn’t holding a symbol of world power or hegemony, she was holding a symbol of freedom and all the other American ideals that seem so false and fragile at times. I was humbled by this. In my youth, it was easy to disavow this symbol of America’s hypocrisy. But this woman wasn’t holding the same flag that’s waved by the patriotic jerks who want to bomb a country of innocents into the Stone Age. In her hands, it meant something good and true.
I cut out the picture of this woman and taped it to the side of my computer. At first, I thought I may have to take it down, because the wrenching of my heart every time I looked at it was hard to take. The picture gave me something important, something I valued, but the brain (enjoyer of certainty and habit) fights any attempt of the heart to be open, to let love and suffering coexist in a contradiction that will always be linked.
Soon the picture became part of my desktop landscape, and I had to strain to reexperience what had felt like “too much” only days before. This is the other part of the contradiction: the love, the suffering… and the ability to move on. Thomas Friedman, who has written extensively about the Middle East, said on NPR’s “Fresh Air” that people who live with terrorism every day are either survivors or thrivers. The survivors are consumed by fear; the thrivers are appropriately careful, but they don’t let fear rule their lives. He wished for us all to be thrivers.
One of my friends flew back East 5 days after the Events. Another friend doesn’t want to fly again until she knows what’s going to happen. I wonder if we will ever “know what’s going to happen.” One thing I have not felt much during this topsy-turvy time is fear. It could be the Zoloft working its magic, or it could be the enormity of the Events, the vagueness of the threat, and the pointlessness of being afraid. It seems likely that the terrorists who are still out there won’t target the airlines again—we’ve already rushed to close that barn door after the horse was gone. For all we know, having made their symbolic statement about American finance and military might, they will start planting bombs in random small towns and cities throughout the country—San Rafael, Boulder, Taos, Ashfield—but it’s all too amorphous. Why not just go ahead and worry about Death and be done with it? For me, at least, the Events have not so much struck terror in me (though I could still be in the shock stage) as they have made me realize it’s pointless to fear the unpredictable and the unexpected—which is to say, Life itself. I could die on a hijacked airplane or be hit by a bus or get crushed in the next earthquake. Speaking of which, to quote myself, “They say there’s a 60% chance of earthquake. Well, there’s a 100% chance of death.” Who are we trying to kid?
Overall, I’d have to say that during these last weeks, thanks to the Zoloft, I have been more forgiving of myself than I would have been in the past. I have mostly allowed myself to experience whatever life brings me: the sweetness of the only cartoon in this week’s New Yorker (a violinist with her head bowed, stopping the music, and her cat covering its eyes), the sadness even when it does not bring tears, the irritability when it does not achieve righteous anger, the hardening and softening of my heart in seemingly alternating pulses, the occasional fear, the love, the lack of fear, the lack of love, the political confusion, the selfishness, the compassion. I think I have never before felt so much a part of humanity. I don’t want to give up that feeling—that sane connection with reality—but I don’t know if I can stand it. Sometimes it is just too heartbreaking to be alive, and to feel so much.
Almost last, but certainly not least, Diane sent a group of us the following poem. My first thought when I saw it was, “I don’t want a goddamn poem.” I was already up to here with beautiful expressions of loss, love, and gratitude. But the poem is exceptional, and so I share it here.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you
with all the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
from The Rain in the Trees, copyright© 1998 by W.S. Merwin.
And now—I don’t know about you, but I need a freakin’ break. So here is a guest contributor to take our minds off our own species’ troubles.
my life with mare—a work in progress
by pookie (poet manqué)
so i live with this human… they call her mare like a horse haha…. ive been studyin her for about 14 years now… observin her closely takin copious mental notes. i do my surveillance with eyes half closed so she thinks im sleepin but im always on the job.
mary is remarkably unselfconscious in front of me which tells me she has no clue as to my true mental capacity. i play the dumb kitty cat pretty good if i do say so myself. she doesnt even check for my whereabouts when she gets out her magic wand. i have to say, thats kind of insultin, i mean what am i, chopped liver/she thinks i can sleep through that racket/well someone has to maintain the proper boundaries around here so i quietly leave the room and find somethin to do downstairs like visit the litter box… though i usually like to save that for mealtimes, just to get her goat….
i used to enjoy a little self-diddlin myself; she had this fuzzy lavender blanket that i just loved; but as soon as i got my paws on it and got my mojo workin, shed grab it away. but those days are long gone and not even kitty viagra would help me now.
its hell to get old.
i have to admit that not that much happens to me. its a big day if she lets me go out on the patio to lie on the sticker plants. i dont much care for the sticker removal process but its so nice to get a whiff of fresh air that isnt comin from a window three feet above my head. lots of interestin smells out there. i try to hide in the honeysuckle vines, hopin shell forget im there but she never does. ive been studyin the fence, which has a possible way out if i could dig deep enough… but im not gettin any younger….
ok heres the big confession. i was abused as a kitten. i know its very trendy to talk about those things now, but i had to get it off my chest. this horrible man used to throw things at me and even throw me when he could catch me. it was pretty brutal but it was the only life i knew. then mare took me in when no one else would have me and for that im grateful. but there was that time she almost let me die of a bladder infection. for once i wished i could speak cuz she sure wasnt gettin the first clue about how much pain i was in. i have to admit since then her attitude has changed for the better… she pets me a lot more and talks to me in that high, funny voice they all have when they like us, and i gotta admit it feels pretty good.
sorry i was so cranky last time i wrote. thats what happens when you dont get your tuna-flavored laxative when you want it. i gotta admit the spoken vocabulary of my species leaves much to be desired… meow… mew… erkk… there just isnt a lot of range when youre askin for somethin specific. she has this cartoon of a cat lyin on a shrinks couch and hes sayin to the shrink im startin to feel dependent and boy can i relate to that.
anyway i came into her life when i was a tough young tomcat with a chip on my shoulder and a few problems with anxiety and depression… from the kittenhood abuse of course. when i was just startin to get the hang of the new place and still had the strength to jump up on the dinin room table and the washin machine and actually look out the freakin window she brought in a little girl cat that she called tweeter and i called ms priss… oy gevalt… i think mare thought she was doin me a favor but what favor thats what i want to know. ms priss was a connivin little thing actin all sweet to mares face but talkin mighty catty behind her back… meow… she even played this stupid game fetchin little wadded up pieces of paper that mare would throw and then bringin em back and droppin em at her feet lookin up at her all cutesy gag me with a spoon. i tried to get on mares good side by runnin after corks but i was too proud to bring em back so little ms priss got all the best seats in the house like the bed and that damn lavender blanket. i used to pounce on her when she walked by… ms priss that is… what a brainless girly girl she was shed squeal and mare would come runnin.
since ms priss went away life has been pretty uneventful. i eat sleep beg for treats lie on cardboard sometimes walk back and forth between mares legs when shes workin on the computer which is pretty much all the time unless shes stretched out like a corpse on the bed. it’s not a bad life all in all.
well i guess id better skedaddle. til next time yrs truly
p.s. good luck people, god bless humanity and all creatures great and small