Saturday, November 12, 2005

Talking Through Time

Few things remind me of my limitations like an afternoon spent minding the family store. Anya, Corinne, their mother and their kids have gone to an upstate auntie's house for the afternoon. The CD player perfumes the store with Waterlily Flower Music. That is the name of the CD that would have driven me out of my mind until fairly recently but now amuses me. While I was listening to a couple of CDs just like it awhile ago, it took me almost an hour to notice the store didn't actually smell like tropical flowers.

I can't remember where I read this. When accused witches said they flew on broomsticks, their accusers wrote that they were impelled to accept this as fact. I must paraphrase but essentially the magistrate said: Not to believe is to deny the testimony of the senses. It may have been ergot poisoning working its hallucinogenic magic on whole villages at a time that led the Inquisition to burn millions of witches at the stake but just as often it was spite and greed. Many facets of those prosecutions perplex me.

1. As a fairly secure, twentieth century American woman, it is hard for me to understand how an idea could be important enough to destroy lives over.
2. How could anyone find in him- or herself the hard-hearted malice necessary to burn a human being or an animal alive, indifferent to its unimaginable suffering?
3. How is it that for centuries - centuries - nobody said, "Wait..."?

I have been a notoriously dreadful judge of character most of my life. I freely admit that as princesses go, this one has kissed princes and toads in nearly equal numbers. Good judgment. Bad judgment. I can't claim any special insight into the soul. Millions of people wake up every morning and fire up brains with greater horsepower than mine, so I get really confused when I see a parade of naked emperors.

Over at Tami, the One True, a commenter (in the interest of full disclosure: a person I know well) asserts that the reason we're at war now is:
I think it's a reaction to Vietnam. For years we've heard that the reason that it was a clusterfuck was that public protest undermined the effort and made pariahs our of patriotic boys. The pendulum swung and instead of the soldiers feeling shame, the public that had been critical felt shame.

Eager to avoid and make amends, a penitent John Q hesitated before unleashing the awesome force of critical thought.
I know him to be smarter than I am, industrious and accomplished; when he expresses an opinion, I consider it carefully before donning stilettos and foxtrotting holes through it. I gave his idea some thought. Perhaps he's right about the public's attitude. I know that in the days and weeks after the Towers came down and the Pentagon went up in flames, I distinctly remember watching the news and listening to the drumbeat growing louder in the distance. When the flag-waving started, I knew brown people somewhere were in for a heap of shit.

In my lifetime, flag-waving has foreshadowed military might unleashed in an uneven power struggle with non-white people. When I was born in February 1963, we were already involved in Vietnam for about four years, depending on whom you believe. In any case, for people born after - say - 1957 until about 1970, our childhood version of normal reality including war rumbling on and on in the background. This abstraction came with one concrete fact: young men became rare birds in the local flock. Older brothers disappeared. Politics divided us. More than anything, it was a desperate time that stretched on and on, and the desperation became normal. When the war ended, a lot of Americans wandered around in circles for a very long time, still having the same arguments and holding the same pointless grudges. You know what? It was a really shitty time. Don't remember it that way? You were probably young, attractive and smoking a lot of dope. Have a seat. We'll come back to you.

In the autumn of 2001, a politically varied group of my closest friends on a list discussed military action in general and against Afghanistan in particular. At the time, I said I hadn't heard any convincing argument for war at all. A manhunt's a manhunt and not a war. Congress panicked, and the nation panicked - and I understood that being attacked by foreign actors on our native soil shook America so deeply that we as a military power were about to run around like Richard Simmons at a Hostess Twinkie factory. In the days before we attacked, I felt feverish. It was during these conversations, during which one of my friends totally lost it and has never spoken to the rest of us again, that my feelings about Vietnam as a formative experience crystallized: there is seldom, almost never, a reason to invade a soverign nation. In most cases, war is a failure of diplomacy. I am opposed to war, not just this one. I am especially opposed to wars in which combatants cannot be distinguished from civilians, and that this would occur was clear to me from the beginning. Those jokes about Middle East politics aren't just jokes.

It was clear to me from the beginning that the rhetoric didn't make sense, that we were doing something just to do something, that the plan had no end stages because it hadn't taken the Afghani people into consideration. It was clear that the American people were scared shitless, and who could blame them? It was also clear that I couldn't articulate much of this because all I could think of was the useless, pointless losses of mothers and children and limbs and dumb, rumbling normal. Because now people my age, who were too young to fight in Vietnam, are mostly too old now to fight in Iraq, but our missing older brothers have undertaken warmaking again, this time from the driver's seat, and this time with our children in the crosshairs.

We have, in the wake of our worst moments as Americans, returned to our childhood normal, and to our denial, and our feeling that it belongs in the background. The administration didn't stumble on that idea all by itself. It had a lot of help from people who went to school and birthday parties and celebrated Christmas and spared a thought for missing older brothers only when reminded. Self-absorption is characteristic of children. What is our excuse now? How is it we go on listening to fantastic stories and waiting for our children to be burned in the public square?

As I was writing this, chickens came home to roost. A clean, attractive woman, probably about my age, walked into the store and asked if I knew where she could find a soup kitchen. This kind of conversation has never happened in my presence in this town - in New Brunswick, yes, and I'd know what to do - but not here. I looked up the address for Elijah's Promise and wrote down directions. Half an hour later, the woman was back. It was plain from the way she was talking that she was not well and the story she was telling was not quite right but I had no way to determine what might be true. She certainly needed professional help. I tried to find her a spot in the women's shelter, making phone call after phone call. Finally, a woman picked up on a homelessness hotline. We went around and around in progressively more horrifying circles: where could this woman spend the night? How about a hot meal at least? No matter how I phrased it or changed the question the answer was the same: Middlesex County had nothing to offer this woman. No food. No shelter. Nothing. I asked about soup kitchens, emergency services, anything. She asked if I wanted her supervisor to call me back and explain it. I asked, "Is that going to find this woman a bed or a meal?"


"Then what's the point if I understand why?"

I gave the woman the two cups of fruit and gelatin I had. I gave her a spoon. I apologized to her for being unable to help her but the truth was that I was shocked beyond my ability to think things through and find solutions. I had nothing more to offer her than two lunchbox snacks that wouldn't fill up a five-year-old, and the hope that she'd make her way to Elijah's Promise the next day at lunchtime, when they would feed her. My face hot with shame, I sent her out of the store into the street on this November night. But let's not make me more important in this situation than I truly am.

Why are the shelters full and the budgets cut? War. Hurricanes. Bankruptcy. Our utter failure to recognize ourselves as part of the fabric of problems and solutions. Middlesex County had exhausted its monthly budget before the second Saturday. This woman is plainly in need of mental health assistance. I gave her Jell-O and a spoon.



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