The Tragedies That Change Us

Memorial to Virginia Tech students – image from The Telegraph

As I was searching my old journals for poems and snippets to post when I get busy next week, I came across this section of my morning pages that I wrote riding the city bus to grad school the day after the Virginia Tech massacre.

I want to cry out over it, this society of ours. I want to weep and tear out my hair, to scream and shake people out of their apathy. But I sit on a bus, not making eye contact, with a lump in my throat. And I will shove the tragedy from my mind, and joke and laugh. And behind it all, I’ll feel an empty space in my soul. Another missed opportunity to start the revolution.

Reading this got me thinking about all the moments of violence that have happened in my lifetime and how each has changed me profoundly. And also the media circus that has surrounded each. I mean, America has “lost its innocence” more times than is even possible in my 31 years. By the very definition of the phrase, shouldn’t each individual only lose their innocence once? Or is the naivety of our American culture such that once the dust clears (in some cases literally), we pull a blanket over our heads again? Or is that just human nature? I don’t know. To use the Garden of Eden metaphor, though, humanity doesn’t lose the knowledge it gained by eating the forbidden fruit once they were kicked out of Eden.

For me, the exact moment I lost my innocence was when the Oklahoma City bombing happened. I was twelve. As a precocious twelve year old, I had already read Orwell’s Animal Farm the year before because my older brother had a copy laying around, and I understood it to a large extent. And I knew there were “bad people” in the world that did “bad things”, I knew about war and death, but the Oklahoma City bombing was my first moment of shattering.

Oklahoma City bombing – image from History.com

I couldn’t believe that someone would target babies and young children. And when I went to my mother sobbing, asking how someone could do such a thing, she had no answer. When I followed it up with “how could God allow this to happen?” for the first time (first of many), she had no answer there either. So this was the moment I was disillusioned of adults having the answers, and the moment I first questioned my religious upbringing. My innocence irrevocably lost. And yes, each time another tragedy struck, I was horrified. Columbine happened on my spring break, and my sister and I watched the live feed. My mother called me in college to turn on the T.V. on 9/11, and I saw the second plane hit. I still don’t think I’ve entirely processed my feelings regarding the Sandy Hook shooting. But I never was able to lull myself back into my innocence after the Oklahoma City bombing.

Life is full of moments that shift you (or should be, at least). Positive and negative moments that force you to grow and evolve. I still try to figure out the why sometimes, because that’s what I do, but I know that I never will know everything. Finding the answers to some questions inevitably only leads to more questions. And, for me, that’s what life is about. I wouldn’t ever want to blindly follow or forget any of the life lessons I’ve learned.

Why I Try to Avoid the News at Times

Okay, so there are really THREE reasons why I avoid the news at times. The first is because frequently the way it is presented is sensationalistic garbage. The second is because I feel too much emotionally about the subject matter. (Like the whole debacle with the SNAP cuts. I just… it is too depressing to think about on so many levels.) But the third reason is what I’m going to talk about today. And it’s this – sometimes I hear or read something, and then get SO FREAKING INTERESTED in it that I want to learn all I can, and that’s a distraction and a luxury that I can’t usually afford these days.

This morning, I had on my local public radio station as I drove around (usually opt for music from home, but something made me switch it on this morning), and I heard this interview on NPR with former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who was accused of spying for both the US while he was in Iran, and then Iran while living in the US. And my historian-trained (and character-loving) mind just lit up, and I want to research this man and follow the threads of his public life back and delve deep into Iranian history and I just can’t take the time right now. I’ve got an extremely narrow window of getting a ton of personal projects done (including finishing the edits/rewrites on “The Cephalopod Maid” and completely overhauling our office/studio room to allow me to take on the freelance work I’m about to be inundated with), and then I’m going to be almost literally buried in work for a few months at least, with every free moment spent with my son. If I’m good, maybe I can treat myself to a research session this weekend as a reward (and what a huge nerd am I that doing research is a REWARD to myself for being productive?).

I find the entire debacle of US relations with the Middle East and Central and South America from post-WWII onward fascinating, albeit a fascination that leaves me feeling disgusted and dirty by association (even though much of it happened before I was even born). To talk democracy and freedom from one side and then topple democratically-elected leaders in order to set up dictatorships of our own choosing, to destroy infrastructure and education and impoverish entire generations under the guise of blocking Russia and the dirty communists from winning but in what really was a way to protect special interests, and to have much of the information readily available but not generally discussed or even acknowledged by the US population at large… I don’t know. It’s interesting, in a “gets the gears in my mind whirring about the human species” interesting.

And in getting all kinds of fired up, I’ve realized how much I miss the passionate discussions I used to be able to have. In undergrad, I loved the upper level history classes that involved interpreting what we learned about history, which, along with the hours spent in debate with friends (coupled with talking about movies and music and sex and stupid in-jokes and sharing silly things from the internet, of course), meant that I had plenty of opportunities to indulge in the level of discussion that I’m talking about. Post-undergrad, I was able to still get some of this through being part of a writing group for a year that conveniently included many of my friends from undergrad. In my MFA program, we tended to have a tunnel vision on our projects much of the time, but we got plenty of discussions in through and about our projects, and I was able to throw the occasional dinner or themed party. Then we moved back east, and while I’ve made friends, there isn’t that level of depth involved. Now I focus so much on my son, so much on my work, so much on scrabbling to make money, and these are all definitely worthwhile pursuits, but something is lacking. And it’s difficult to admit that life is lacking in any way, but there it is. I miss having friends that are well-read and willing to engage in discussion, that I don’t have to fear will take offense if I get over-passionate and in fact will sometimes wind me up just to watch me go. I miss sitting in a smallish group and having my opinions challenged, and challenging other people’s opinions. I miss the mental stimulation and learning, both about the topics that we’re discussing and the people who are talking with me. I mean, my husband and I DO talk, but after being friends since 2000 and together since 2001, it’s more of a “wow, I learned this” with not a whole lot of discussion because we already know what each other thinks a lot of the time. And while I love having talks with my toddler, the mental stimulation that I crave just isn’t there yet. 😉 There is always the internet, yet I’m enough of a snob to be unsatisfied with online discussions in the long run.

Well, all that is something to consider as we contemplate where we’re moving come fall (hopefully) and as I still weigh in on what I want to do for the next portion of my life career-wise. In the meantime, I have to focus. Expect to see a lot of old art and poems coming up here soon, because I probably won’t have time for anything else. I decided to take the freelance work with the smaller, independently-owned shop rather than the one tied to a major corporation with bad reviews. I’ll be making slightly less money, but I’ll keep my integrity, don’t need to carry the liability insurance, and they’re willing to work around my schedule. Plus, it makes me feel somewhat less like I hold a useless MFA to be utilizing at least some of the skills I learned while in school.

Creating Challenging and Vital Work

As I’ve written before, I’ve been slowly re-working my way through Deena Metzger’s Writing For Your Life, and last week I came across this quote that really helped me combat some of my fears that I’ve been facing as I get ready to release my poetry collection.  Bear in mind, this book was published in 1992, and our media hasn’t improved since then.

American television, in particular, and increasingly American publishing – alas, most commercial media – have the tendency to reduce life to the flat and pat.  This pervasive trivialization dominates the postmodern world, where life models itself on superficial images and four dimensions are increasingly reduced to two.  Soon we become oblivious to the consequences, which are our constricted and unsatisfying lives.

This quote encapsulates why I’ve felt the need to start this blog and to actually share my creations with the world.  It is my own form of rebellion against this “flat and pat” world we live in.  Understanding this makes my fear a bit more understandable, and it helps me work through it.

It is truly astounding to think about how much the arts and entertainment we consume nowadays is formulaic to a fault, from film to TV to theater to music to books to fine arts.  Even that which is considered “edgy” or “cutting edge” is often just full of graphic sex or violence for the sake of pushing the envelope, it seems.  People buy what they are told to buy, and creators produce what they are told to produce, and the middle men make the money while both the consumers and the artists move further and further away from their inner selves and the truth that they might reveal.

I am going forward and releasing this work, despite the fear (of both success and failure), despite the vulnerable position I put myself into by putting some of my innermost thoughts out in the public world.  Because if I don’t, then I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror.