Over the last week or two, I’ve been touched by stories of loss, some from and about people I don’t know directly, some from people I care about but don’t know well, and some from or about people I am deeply attached to. The experience of loss and grief comes from the limiting or end of some dream of action in the world, whether caused by disability, illness, rejection, or death. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the stories of loss and grief are also stories of survival, living, creating, loving, holding others in relationship. These aspects of the stories – sometimes they are the main stories themselves – are about fierce loving, clear-eyed pleasure (whether sensuous, relational, intellectual…), resonating laughter, and so on. Other aspects of the stories, again sometimes themselves the main threads, are about anger, worry, depression, solitude, fear, futility.
These are your stories, these are my stories: sometimes they are more your stories than mine; sometimes they are our stories. Sometimes it is our story because you pull me into the story; sometimes it is our story because it is my story also, perhaps from the past, possibly from the future; and sometimes it is our story because it has to be our story, you can’t separate it from me, and I can’t separate myself from it.
So, as I look forward to Thanksgiving which I have learned to enjoy as a time of gathering, though this year we won’t celebrate it as Thanksgiving per se – no turkey decorations, no cranberry sauce, no marshmallows with sweet potatoes – but will be celebrating life and family with my German kin, I’m thinking about how to hold loss and life fully. When loss is not immediate, but could be, at any time. My mind boggles. My heart sort-of avoids the question. Or is it avoiding the question? Perhaps the question side-steps living fully. If I just live, including celebration, loss will have its place in there, perhaps not obviously, perhaps not comfortably, but integrated.
What do you do when a city you love is cruelly attacked? Paris is not the only city that has been cruelly attacked this millennium, this decade, this year, this month. Think of Beirut, Baghdad, Lahore, Nairobi, New York…. These are cities whose attackers claimed to be true Muslims, and yet they are a miniscule fraction of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, most of whom do not participate in or support these attacks. Apart from these “Islamist” attacks, there are hundreds of places all over the world where people are subject to cruel attacks by non-Muslim people, mostly in the pursuit of money and power. So cruel attacks, whether by “Islamists” or not, are commonplace (how do I write a sentence like that so calmly?!). Why, then, am I stricken by today’s tragedy in Paris and what do I do about it?
For people who live in Paris, this tragedy means that people they know are hurt – some are dead – and places they know are splattered with blood. Their hearts are broken in an immediate way. That cannot be the case for me. I’m in San Diego, and I haven’t been to Paris in years.
But I’m stricken all the way in San Diego because I know Paris. It is the most beautiful city I know, which may seem irrelevant in the face of humans being mass-murdered but I cannot think of Paris without seeing its beauty; I cannot imagine anyone there who is not shaped by the beauty of Paris (even if negatively because they feel excluded from it). And the beauty of Paris is not a static, plastic beauty nor an archaic, lifeless beauty.
The beauty of Paris comes alive because it is a vibrant world city, in which you hear languages, see art, listen to music from all the populated continents. It’s a city in which I can easily imagine myself, my family, and any of you, including refugees from warfare,“Islamist terrorism,” drought, and extreme poverty. Its beauty comes alive because so much living – walking, eating, painting, arguing, loving, laughing, playing, kissing, self-adorning, thinking, critiquing, mocking – happens in public, in a way that I have enjoyed and I love. Parisians are often offhand, grouchy, and snotty; they can be racist and bigoted; but they can also be charming, enlightening, loving, and very, very kind. The wonderful thing about Paris, and France in general, is that to a very significant degree one can hold them to liberté, egalité, fraternité. That ethos has inspired great heroism, and that ethos made me brave when I walked into uncaring offices or unfriendly cafés.
So when Paris is attacked, it feels personal, not gut-wrenchingly immediate as it feels to people in Paris, but personal because I’ve lived some of what Paris is, I’ve absorbed some of its spirit. I’ve laughed with and loved some of its people, I’ve been inspired by its heroines and heroes, I’ve been intellectually challenged by strangers, I’ve argued with its officials, gosh some part of me is in Paris and some part of Paris is in me.
And the attacks in Paris don’t make me forget the attacks in other cities, other places. Somehow they bring those other attacks into sharper focus. There was life – living, loving, laughing, arguing, excluding, including, self-aggrandizing, self-adorning, with beauty, grouchiness, bigotry, kindness, grieving – in those places too.
So what now? I’m mourning, angry. For the first time in years, perhaps ever, I think, “war, this is an act of war.” Perhaps because of what Paris stood for in World War II? Less fancifully, perhaps because this attack follows a string of possibly linked attacks in different countries on different peoples? But if this is war, who exactly are we (Americans, the French, the “Allies”) fighting and how? If it’s ISIS, it operates like a cult, how do you fight a cult? In the long-run with social-psychological resistance and safeguards. In the short run? Must we acquiesce to the curtailing of civil liberties, the blanket “other-ing” of whole groups of people? Must we narrow and regulate our kindness? If it’s Al Qaeda, who is Al Qaeda today? And how does fighting Al Qaeda feed ISIS? The option that is perhaps most logical is also the hardest to activate – supporting true (not puppet) alternatives that, inspiringly and powerfully, will draw acolytes’ attention away from the lures of Al Qaeda and ISIS. It’s the most difficult option and also long-term, so in the short-term, what? There has to be something. This won’t go away easily, not on its own.
A post-script, a reminder to myself: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Parenthetically, the picture on my blog page is of graffiti in Paris, as is the picture on my “about” page.)
Recently a San Diego-based colleague and friend invited me to sit at her table for the local celebration of National Philanthropy Day. I found myself wavering about whether or not to accept the invitation* because I assumed she had invited me as a dialogue and leadership development practitioner, a role I am downsizing, and not as a writer, a role that still feels baggy around me, that I am still exploring, and that didn’t seem terribly relevant to the purposes of the event. A few days after the invitation, I had the opportunity to discuss my professional-identity-related ambivalence with her, and, in addition to being slightly puzzled by the intensity of the question (a puzzlement I heard from others as well, mostly in the form of “who cares”), she told me she’d invited me as a “philanthropist” to celebrate what I and others contribute, to our region and world, in whatever ways we do – with money, volunteer activities, dialogue work, writing. I was delighted by the large ontological frame her use of the epithet “philanthropist” constructed for my different professional identities, indeed, for all my identities as a social being.
Mentioning this delight to another (not-San Diego-based; indeed fabulously global) friend, I initiated a prolonged argument on the meaning of philanthropy. My easy adoption of philanthropy as an umbrella that would encompass my various professional and personal identities was vigorously rejected on the grounds that philanthropy has a strictly technical meaning that separates it from its roots in the massive sloshing phenomenon of human-love-for-human, a vast not-misanthropy that exists beyond an imaginary zero line. I didn’t waver. Nor did she. We ran out of time, so the discussion ended.
Eventually, somewhat gleefully, since my philanthropy is larger, at least in conception, than her philanthropy, once my cortisol level dropped, I let it go.
So now I return, non-polemically, happily higher on oxytocin than on cortisol, to imagining writing as philanthropy. Does it work even if my writing is not intentionally philanthropic, as it often isn’t? A sentence pops into my immediate response, drawn from Ben Jeffrey’s review of Michel Houllebecq’s dispiriting novels “… if it feels true, it will be better writing than something that only feels like it ought to be true—literature isn’t essentially normative.” There’s a piece of my answer in there. But writing as philanthropy calls for a whole blog post of its own, so more on that another time.
* It turned out I wasn’t free at that time.
The small girl stared at the scolding woman, gradient of seventy-five degrees. The small, but bigger than the girl, boy stood to a side. The woman turned, too quickly for the boy to change his expression or disappear. He looked at the floor, sideways at the girl, as words poured on him, as if spouted by a generous mouth offering potable water, without cease, in an old French town. The little girl stuck a thumb against each nostril and flapped her hands at him. He frowned and earned a louder barrage, without punctuation, commas periods falling away. Now the woman turned this way, now she turned the other way, and the children exchanged grimaces and tongues out and waggling fingers. At last, the woman stopped, waved her hands threateningly, then uttered a brief phrase, and walked out. The children dived under the bed, and poked and squabbled and laughed. The woman returned. The children fell silent. “Where are you?” the woman asked, and started scolding again. The girl rolled her eyes and made a face. The boy tickled her. She started shaking with laughter, soundlessly, and watching her, he started giggling, soundlessly as well. “Idiots,” the woman said very loudly and left again. The two children continued to giggle in silent spasms until one coughed up a drop of bile. And then they laughed out loud. For many years.
Laughing out loud, real, unaffected – no irony, no falseness – laughing-out-loud is among the most ecstatic experiences of being alive. So should I, could I, how should I write LOL prose? I find this a hard question (as in, the answer is not obvious) and a difficult question (as in, this question is likely to require looking blankly at a dead end, in other words, inadequacy). Most often, what makes me laugh out loud is self-shiftingly vulgar irony, and so I fluctuate – though with very little shifting, of self, or anything else – between mumbling internally, “I can’t write that kind of prose” (as in, I’m not a comedian, which, I tell myself, is a non-literary figure, for the most part), and mumbling, perhaps externally, “I can’t write that kind of prose” (as in, I’m not clever enough to write that kind of prose, especially since prose means restricting my palette for vulgar irony to one medium, words; in other words, no sound, no smell, no grimace, no gesture, no pokes, no mirror neurons, no palpable, malleable time, or, if any of these, just a little, a blotch, a line, in very limited registers).
If I could draw, like Nicole Hollander, for example, this’d be a different story.
(or) Perhaps not.