People out there were having it a whole lot worse than me and mine and I was perfectly happy to think about what I did not have to experience as long as I could also learn how to feel nothing in return.
There is a sect of Buddhist monks that look at images of dead people every day and with that meditation they habituate their emotional acuity accordingly. When I first heard of that practice, if it is real or not, it made good sense to me. My grandmother used to say that if you think you have it bad then think of someone that has it worse. She said that it would cheer us up.
I am not sure if I exaggerate, and my mother may remember differently, but my everlasting impression is that for two decades my grandmother told us that she was going to be dead any day. Whenever we called her on the phone it was as if we were meant to be emotionally invested in her tedious lament. We stopped calling her. Eventually she was correct. It seemed so natural, so obvious as if by design we were prepared for the day of her death.
Then something really bad happens.
I was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on the morning of 9/11, in preparation to head out on the subway to go over to the Ground Zero area. I got a phone call from my brother in Texas; he wanted to know where I was. Then he told me to stay where I was. Then I spent my morning with co-workers, all of us anxious to see the story unfold on the screen of a small black and white television that we had found in the basement. The horror is that we fill up our lives with imaginary adventure and then something really bad happens.
These days it is common for folks to share “Where were you then?” stories.
Wherever you happened to be I can say with certainty that 9/11 created an emotional cluster fuck, a focal point for instantaneous reference in our usually not very well shared lives. We can picture the blank faces in an airplane window on approach to their demise, remember the graceful image of an in-free-fall man, an unanticipated but long walk in a crowd across a bridge, remember running, gasping, sitting, crying, and stocking up on canned beans before hunkering down in our homes with the news, here and not here, all in one.
But this is not about 9/11; it is about where my ‘be prepared’ crowd-bubble went on a post-9/11 thread of emotional discovery.
How we learn to cope.
As a child my cat ran out of a driveway culvert in a quick dash across the road and was very rapidly mashed into a lump of bloody fur, bones and warm cat meat as the truck sped past.
Time is like that.
On the television we went to Afghanistan and Iraq and that was entertainment. Regardless of whatever the strategic intent from day-to-day would be, the smart movie action of the news served the purpose to bring us out of ourselves while nasty people were being killed somewhere else, anywhere other than in our garden. We felt badly for ourselves but those people out there got their asses kicked much worse. It cheered some of us. For others it was like, “Damn, that was weird how that cat did that.”
Forget suspension of belief. We can believe whatever we feel like. What we need here is to learn to suspend the heart.
Oklahoma folks came to NYC shortly after 9/11 with the benevolence to infiltrate and share how they had come to terms with the emotional intensity of their explosive experience. On April 19, 1995 the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was blown up and it was a cluster fuck of epic proportion, though not as gargantuan as 9/11. It is the thought that counts.
A fellow from Poland came to Brooklyn in October of 2001 and told us about the 17th century wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe and how during WW2 they had been destroyed. That seemed remote from our experience, a pity, so we went with a troupe of timber framers to Podlaskie and Bialystok in northeastern Poland to have a gawk around at historic mosques, synagogues and wooden churches. The idea was to rebuild one of those annihilated sacred log and timber sites. As if we were invited to recreate the Murrah building at some convenient empty parcel in the New Jersey meadowlands, but more exotic and foreign.
Everyone in Poland that we met seemed to be happy to be in their lives, recovered from a half-century of Soviet exploitation and all well but for this nasty understory that popped up into our faces at unexpected interludes called the Holocaust.
Big boys don’t cry, they get even and learn not to taunt their cat into a culvert… the unfortunate stupid kitty; yet, there is little to stop some boys when they grow older from inventing new ways to annihilate stray cats. Our friend in Poland pointed out the wooded grove where the Nazis first used nerve gas. It looked woody.
The German engineer at our educational symposia quietly attempted to interest us Americans in the magnificent elegance of his odd little timber frame widgets; they were round metal and provocatively spiky—suddenly we did not understand a word of his outburst of blubber and wail in the back of the dark room where we viewed informative Power Point slides.
As a boy the engineer’s mother told him, as they stood on their stoop hand in hand, to never forget his childhood friends who as he could well see had been removed, and as we now know in retrospect, were soon to be erased. Voyeur proximity to the Holocaust deepens our anxiety in a darkened room.
On one day there I met a fellow from Belarus.
His occupation was to go into the contamination zone from Chernobyl with the assignment to figure out what to do with radioactive contaminated sacred sites. Make a record of the structure, replicate, or decontaminate. Grandmothers move back and their families follow. I had never thought much about Chernobyl before but in an afternoon I got a strong dose of reality check. That night in my sleep I woke up screaming.
I came up hard across the reality that we live in a world where people are unwanted.
My grandmother told me one time that she thought that my mother got pregnant with me to spite her. It was about the same time she told me that she wished she had given my grandfather’s tools to my uncle, instead of to me. A retroactive erasure. My father ran away at the paternity suit. Original rejection. I was raised up unknowingly in an environment where half the family that I thought was mine believed that I was illegitimate. None of them would come right out and tell me so. Revelation was left to my mother. Up to then, half of my life, it was as if I had a mark but did not know it. I have an urge to demand my legitimacy.
I identify with the dead and discarded as much as with the living. I needed to learn more about Chernobyl and from that need I proceeded to acquire as many books on the subject as I have been able to stomach. Thousands of people were discarded on 9/11 but the much more silent sacrifice of events like Chernobyl, as with climate change, adds up slowly, incrementally and invisibly to the death of all of us. How can we possibly feel our way through to the end?
Then there was Katrina.
My initial reaction was no, our country is so much better than to allow a massive human sacrifice and let it stand unchallenged. We take care of our own. Reality is that we do not do very well to take care of our own; we simply have different ways to cover over how we amortize the loss and discard of human life. We went down to Bay Saint Louis in Mississippi and saw that it was one hell of a mess. If houses were not totally gone they were moved over or lifted and tossed to land upside down landed on their busted roofs. Survivors tell stories; the dead leave a testament by their abstinence.
I stood in the Lower Ninth Ward near to the industrial canal breach. We had no tour guide. It took a few minutes to recognize the few steps of the concrete stoops as last remnant of where a now disappeared house had stood. I cried.
Fukushima … oh, fuck it. Bad shit happens and we will all be dead soon enough. I need more cat pictures.
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Image credit: The Official CTBTO Photostream/Flickr