Seeing through the Smoke
I was going to write about place as a catalyst for storytelling after I heard Jesmyn Ward speak to this at a writer’s retreat recently. It seemed such a rich subject. Of course, when we stop to think about it, we realize that all powerful fiction and non-fiction is born out of distinct landscape(s), the people whose stories must be told growing up in particular unique geographies and carrying with them certain particular quirks of character and vision. Think of To Kill a Mockingbird as a painting of provincial life in the South in the thirties, or The Great Gatsby as a loving but sad reflection of the Eastern seaboard society in the twenties, or The Grapes of Wrath as a reflection of painful struggles in the Dustbowl of this country during the Great Depression.
The problem with this subject is that when I apply it to myself, admitting that through my life I’ve adopted many various landscapes, I find I have a complicated, sometimes disorganized array of possible stories to tell, some belonging to myself and many to the different characters I’ve met along the way in such places as: India, Cambodia, Italy, Burma, France, and so on... Many lands, many stories, and not enough time, perhaps …
What is really on my mind now, however, is that fires are still raging in northern California, a place I call home before any other, and my heart is heavy. My city by the sparkling bay is still shrouded in smoke and people on the street are wearing bizarre looking masks to help them cope with breathing and moving about. It sometimes strikes me that we’re in some goofy science fiction movie … What happens when I go out with my dog these days is that I smell the burning of houses, I imagine the burning up of human beings and perhaps animals who couldn’t get out of Paradise (ironic name in this tragic scenario) fast enough, I envision the thousands upon thousands of exhausted firefighters who are pushing their bodies to battle this fire, their faces blackened by smoke and their bodies stretched beyond anyone’s imagination of what is possible for humans. So, it’s not just the fact of the smoke draped over San Francisco, the place I grew up in … with the delicious smells of sizzling garlic, espresso, the salt air, the aromatic manicured hedges, pine trees, and oh, again the damp and delicious sea breezes that bless our dried faces, and the fog that softens all harsh sounds and makes us feel quite safe. This smoke tells us that we are in dire conditions in northern California, with drought and denial and broken hearts playing their parts. We are closer than ever to realizing that we and this amazing planet are not invincible.
I have a favorite quote from literature, which goes like this: “Attention must be paid …” It is uttered by Willy Loman’s wife in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, as she cries out that her husband’s lonely and unsuccessful struggle to find success deserves to be witnessed, because he is a human being and we must not turn away from the suffering around us. Yes. We must not turn away… This is why our journalists put up with untold abuses (even death) during these times. They have a mission to tell the truth and not turn away. This is why we must look at the homeless man with a kind smile on our face, because he is real, he is suffering, and he is part of the human family. This is why it’s a good idea to read an unusual history of the United States (Jill Lepore - These Truths) that brings to the surface dire cruelties and inexcusable conditions that have survived over time “under the radar,” specifically the relentless stories of slavery and racism and the systematic oppression of women. We must pay attention so we can understand and respond thoughtfully, constructively. I saw a powerful movie last night called “My Private War,” about the woman journalist, Marie Colvin, who consistently put herself in the line of fire in nightmarish scenarios in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, (just to name a few) so that she could witness that which others would never be able to, so that she ultimately could tell the truth about war. It was a moving and disturbing account of a brave, sometimes self destructive woman who needed to take dire risks in order to feel that she was true to herself. This dedication to danger was ultimately responsible for her death in Syria during a particularly terrifying bombing campaign. I’m positive there are legions of news gathering men and women out there on various dusty, rubble filled battlegrounds who are compelled in the same way, and I must say I’m deeply grateful to them for their dedication to recording the horrible truths of men at war.
The memoir I wrote three years ago entitled Bowing to Elephants is my own intimate document of truth telling, about my alcoholic mother and the suffering she incurred, about not being able to see who I was as a child, about my own compulsive throwing of myself at the world in order to discover some authentic truths. The book’s mission was to affirm that this kind of quest is a worthy one, though certainly not without suffering. What I ultimately understood was that our suffering frequently fades away for a time as we face what is real, both in ourselves and in others around us. We are then able to return to walking in the light with an open heart and an understanding of the consequences of man’s darkest actions.
This paying attention is a brave and worthy choice. It might cause restless nights in the dark when you wish to sleep and recover, it might make others around you uncomfortable with your persistent probing, but in the end it suggests you are in this struggle for the long haul, to be heard and do what good you can do in this life … and to make a difference. To all my California comrades, lets lift our faces and try to look through all the smoke, and know there is deep suffering right now, and that in time the blooms and new growth of spring will come.
Sending lovingkindness out to all those in the darkest part of this struggle…