Thursday, September 22, 2011

pause to remember = pause to reflect?

On September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Yahoo posted a button on the left side of their home page which said the following: PAUSE TO REFLECT

I was curious so I clicked on the button. The entire page slowly faded away and, in its place, a picture of the Twin Towers peeking out of a sea of clouds appeared. In the middle of the image was another statement: WE PAUSE TO REMEMBER. A black bar slowly glided horizontally beneath those words, measuring the time a viewer was meant to be quiet and remember/reflect.

I liked the simplicity of the sentiment and the uncluttered image and the perspective of the towers and nothing else from high above... a place of perspective that we don't get to have in our lives. Yet, I found myself unable to sit and calmly remember, because I was struck by the difference in language -- the call to reflect and then the announcement of remembering. Which was it? Was I just to remember the events of 9/11 or was I to reflect upon them? And which was more important?

Remembering is pure. That is not to suggest that our memories do not cloud and distort the past, that we do not shape what happened to fit particular images of ourselves or others... but that there is an attempt to recreate something just as it was. For some reason when I first thought of remembering, I did not think of myself or other people, but of birds. It would be reasonable to assume that birds must do a lot of remembering, considering their need to migrate incredibly long distances within very specific windows of time. However, this notion is mistaken. As it turns out, migration has nothing to do with remembering or learning. There is nothing to "remember," as birds are never taught the migratory pathways. "It is a comfortable myth that experienced elders lead the flocks of migrating birds south -- for curlews, as for most species, the novices are on their own," (14) writes Scott Weidensaul in Living On the Wind. But even Charles Darwin made the mistake of believing that birds migrated through the use of memory. While studying pigeons in order to understand natural selection, Darwin "wondered if crated birds, hauled far from their lofts and released, somehow memorized the twists and turns in the road as they felt them, replaying and reversing this memory to find their way home." (Weidensaul, 60) But, Darwin turned out to be wrong... and yet the birds' abilities weren't entirely instinctive either.
The truth is far more wonderful than that, although after half a century of research we have glimpsed only a piece of the puzzle. We do know that they can track the sun, the moon, and the stars, compensating for their apparent movement to use them as compasses. But birds can also apparently perceive a host of sensations that are beyond our unaided senses -- weak magnetic fields, faint odors, polarized light, barometric pressure, even extraordinary low-frequency sound waves that echo halfway around the world. Combined with the genetically programmed urge to head in a certain direction at a certain time of year, these clues allow birds to cross continents, oceans, hemispheres. (Weindensaul, 58)

So it turns out that birds are half robots, half miniature scientists, but that they save their memory for other things rather than their migratory routes. I wonder what those things might be.

Remembering seems to involve description, rather then analysis. If I say that I remember the day that my father came to visit me in nursery school, that suggests that I can describe to you what happened, what things looked like, perhaps even what I was wearing. That means, too, that I can describe the emotional experience... how after we drew a picture together of the double rainbow we had seen in Puerto Rico on a recent vacation, it came time for my father (and all the visiting fathers) to leave while I had to remain in school for the rest of the day. And I would be able to tell you that I felt a deep and uncharacteristic sense of abandonment, surprising my highly independent four-year old self. In my memory, I stand outside watching my father walk away. My hand is still open, still feeling his large, strong hand which had moments before held mine. I stand there for a long time and I am outside completely alone. The world feels silent. There is no sound in my memory, not even the sound of a goodbye. This is where the memory ends.

But is this what really happened? It doesn't seem possible or logical that the nursery school would have allowed one little four-year old to go outside and then stay there by herself unmonitored. Can I trust what I remember? Is memory accurate and, if not, then what is happening?

Phenomenology deals with this problem all the time. Phenomenologists attempt to assign a certain objectivity to subjective events -- those events of conscious experience involving phenomena. Gaston Bachelard addressed such philosophical questions, especially as related to the lifeworld, in his book The Poetics of Space. The lifeworld is the one's own personal horizon of experience, the world in which you and only you live, and thereby in which objects, space, and time take on particular and specific meanings according to your individual perception (a perception which is formed by past experience, among other things.) According to Bachelard, memory is not really about description at all:
For the real houses of memory, the houses to which we return in our dreams, the houses that are rich in unalterable oneirism, do not readily lend themselves to description. To describe them would be like showing them to visitors. We can perhaps tell everything about the present, but about the past! The first, the oneirically definitive house, must retain its shadows. For it belongs to the literature of depth, that is, to poetry, and not to the fluent type of literature that, in order to analyze intimacy, needs other people's stories. All I ought to say about my childhood home is just barely enough to place me, myself, in an oneiric situation, to set me on the threshold of a day-dream in which I shall find repose in the past. Then I may hope that my page will possess a sonority that will ring true -- a voice so remote within me, that it will be the voice we all hear when we listen as far back as memory reaches, on the very limits of memory, beyond memory perhaps, in the field of the immemorial. All we communicate to others is an orientation towards what is secret without ever being able to tell the secret objectively. (Bachelard, 13)
Thus, I orient you towards the secret of my past, the secret of that moment when my father had to go back to work and leave me to my nursery school happenings... but I don't take you into my own daydream or into the depths of why this particular memory strikes me and strikes me as so oddly painful rather than comforting.

Memory, however inaccurate or secretive, seems selective. Why does my memory of the nursery school visit stop with me outside the school? Most likely because all that followed is not as significant, somehow, not as fundamental a part of my lifeworld. If I were to tell you of my memory of 9/11, I would tell you of going to my first class (I was a graduate student at the time), then hearing murmurs in the hallway, and finally being released, and then sitting and staring at the event replay itself on television over and over again. I don't remember how I got home that day. I don't remember going to sleep. Or eating. Or doing anything but those two things... going to class and watching TV.

Bachelard cites the Journals of Henry David Thoreau to bring home the way in which we 'nest' in memories by comparing the return home of a family to the homesteading of a woodpecker turning a tree into his own:
It is as when a family, your neighbors, return to an empty house after a long absence, and you hear the cheerful hum of voices and the laughter of children, and see the smoke from the kitchen fire. The doors are thrown open, and children go screaming through the hall. So the flicker dashes through the aisles of the grove, throws up a window here and cackles out it, and then there, airing the house. It makes its voice ring up-stairs and down-stairs, and so, as it were, fits it for its habitation and ours, and takes possession. (Thoreau, March 17, 1858)
An interesting parallel, but the 'possession' by the human family involves reincarnating memories through sound and action. Coming home or recreating home involves memory because it is a space only known by remembering. Try to remember the place where you grew up without thinking about a single thing that happened there. Pretty hard, right?

Remembering is indeed a sort of day-dream. Sometimes the 'secret' of our oneiric world is its connection to a kind of infinite expansiveness that always lies outside of us. Bachelard suggests that even we we are not at the sea or in the forest,
merely through memory, we can recapture, by means of meditation, the resonances of this contemplation of grandeur. But is this really memory? [Through this process of magnifying our own being, we find that] ...immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone. (Bachelard, 183-184)
For example, one only needs to enter a forest once and not very far to sense its grandeur... and to sense the immensity of all forests... and then to recall it in memory as something intense and expansive, rather than objective or capable of being objectively expressed. So, the poet Pierre-Jean Jouve writes of the forest:
Pious forest, shattered forest, where the dead are left lying
Infinitely closed, dense with pinkish straight old stems
Infinitely serried, older and grayed
On the vast, deep, mossy bed, a velvet cry.
This is not description, but an expression of how the forest is both in and outside of ourselves. And a memory of it involves other layers of memory of the human condition. In the reverse, a memory of a relationship winds up referencing the immensity and infinite light of the stars in the sky.
When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And he loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

W. B. Yeats
What about history, the remembering that societies do collectively? Once we thought it involved tracing a line objectively through the past, or, as Foucault put it, 'memorizing the monuments of the past and transforming them into documents,' but now we realize that history has been shaped, corrupted, manipulated, and is itself full of ruptures and discontinuities. And history is always being read and rewritten. For instance, if one historian thinks that important political leaders are the most influential force in our world, he may sketch out the past through such a lens. But another historian may look at marginality -- the history of illness, the experience of those under colonial rule, the lives of women in a patriarchal society. Each approach will reveal a different thread about us as people. But no thread alone will be honest or true.

History is a cross between remembering and reflecting because it involves both 'hard' facts about the past and the analytical consideration that marks reflection. Reflection, as opposed to the idea of remembering, is more about the present than the past. Or rather it is about how to incorporate the past into the present. Was the moment when Christo wrapped the Reichstag a moment of remembering... or reflection?

What happens when we begin to reflect? The mistakes of the past become more evident. If you were a woman giving birth between 1950 and 1970, you would have experienced the delivery without much control over decisions being made and probably going through things while being isolated from your partner and family. During this time, "American doctors turned birth into a standardized form of industrial production in which women were, as one patient wrote, 'herded like sheep through an obstetrical assembly line...'" (Leslie Kanes Weisman, Discrimination by Design, 1994, p. 55) Upon reflection, this approach began to seem relatively barbaric and quite impersonal. Those who didn't believe that women should be treated so procedurally began to imagine and then establish birth centers in which childbirth is returned to its place as part of joyous celebration and essential to the human life-cycle. These centers house prenatal classrooms and exercise rooms, rest spaces, and libraries, so that by the time a woman comes to give birth there, the place is already like a second home.

I used to ask my students to reflect upon their own work and learning. They always groaned at first, but then again, 9th graders groan at anything. I often felt, though, that the discussions that evolved out of a reflective writing exercise were more valuable than whatever we had done in the first place. For example, after reading Black Boy, my students last year created 'Injustice Projects.' As a model, we used the Falling Whistles campaign, more specifically the little booklet of words and images that comes when you order one of the whistles. The projects the students created blew me away, but it was the reflective piece that ultimately moved me quite profoundly. After thinking about how the project affected them, what they learned, what they saw from others, etc., the students gave more than just stereotypical responses such as 'My eyes were opened.' Rather than saying what they thought they were supposed to say, they turned inward and thought about what they wanted to say... about what actually held meaning for them. Reflection is a turning inward and then projecting this inwardness outward, much like Bachelard's notion of memory and immensity. It is a chance to connect your own experience to something greater or to recognize meaning that may have evolved and changed from the time that the initial experience took place.

What is it called when we remember something traumatic? Are we inherently reflecting, or do we need to be called to reflection? Is it possible for you or me to recall 9/11 without reflecting? At the end of Beatrice and Virgil, a novel that indirectly addresses the Holocaust and directly addresses how to integrate that which we should 'never forget' into our lives, the main character, Henry, writes a short text that cannot be categorized as fiction, memoir, or short story. It is a book of games, but the 'games' presented on each page quite disturb as they are the actual situations that people in the Holocaust had to face. For example, Game Number Five:

The order comes at gunpoint:
you and your family and all the people around you
must strip naked.
You are with your seventy-eight-year-old father,
your sixty-eight-year-old mother,
your spouse, your sister, a cousin,
and your three children,
aged fifteen, twelve and eight.
After you have finished undressing,
where do you look?

A lot of readers of this novel were disgusted by the particular ending. One reviewer said he felt "manipulated and conned." Another: "Ending a book with graphic scenes of violence doesn't really work because you would need to invent a whole new language to properly describe the Holocaust." A third: "After I finished the book, I was so angry and hated the ending so much..." Finally: "The 'short story' at the end cheapened the story and the two main characters."

Martel has spoken about how he feels very strongly that art must express the past or that past is doomed not to take an important place in human memory. But how does one express the inexpressible? Perhaps more by replicating the horror, the anger, the cheapening of lives, the violence, the manipulation, the injustice of the event itself. To me, it seems that Martel was highly successful in that aim. The 'games' that end the novel are, indeed, highly upsetting. And they feel disgustingly inappropriate and to deal absurdly with human suffering. But isn't that, in fact, a highly effective form of reflection? The Holocaust was, in a tragic way, completely absurd and incessantly shocking. Doesn't Martel's ending, in some way, echo this aspect? Would he have done better to give us different accounts of personal Holocaust experiences? Would this have helped us to reflect? Would our emotions have been so charged... when indeed, they should be?

I'm not sure any of us knows how to 'properly' reflect upon the Holocaust... or 9/11. I am not sure we even know how to remember it in the most meaningful or the most accurate way. Remembering and reflection are, in my opinion, fundamentally different acts, which in some ways begin to overlap. One thought that I had through the writing of this entry was that perhaps reflection is a more individual activity, and remembrance a more communal one. Thus, the call to reflect, but the statement that "We" pause to remember. If that is true, then each of us has the responsibility to reflect because it will contribute to a joint remembrance. Furthermore, that brings the individual, the personal, and the intimate into the immensity and overwhelming nature of large-scale tragedy. Perhaps it was not a mistake of Yahoo to ask us to do both. Perhaps both are always necessary.

Monday, September 19, 2011

to be or not to be: making choices

Hamlet is our most infamous ambassador of indecisiveness. In his utter non-agency, others begin to question his sanity as he begins to lose his grip on reality... or at least his ability to direct his own reality. Hamlet does indeed act, but because he does so without forethought and without the conscious decision-making, he acts when pushed against a wall because of emotions, reactions, or threats against his own life. In short, he acts based on impulse rather than thought. Rather than deciding to stand up and reveal the truth of his father's death, he attempts to trick others into revealing their guilt. Hamlet is far too clever for his own good. In devising what he thinks is a brilliant way to draw the truth out of Claudius, he merely avoids making his own choice and confronting the matter head on. One could argue that his self-hatred, with its need for an outlet, finally comes crashing down on poor innocent Ophelia. The people who love us the most are the easiest targets for our anger and discontent (even if it is with the self that we are disappointed.) Hamlet demeans and disrespects his once-lover and takes his cruelty to the point of destroying Ophelia. Her death is ruled an accident, though, and Hamlet never has to bear the consequences for his role in the matter. Even with his more direct role in the murder of Polonius, Hamlet rages, "...but Heaven hath pleased it so, / To punish me with this..." (3.4.174-75)

In his article "Hamlet's 'Too, Too Solid Flesh," R. Chris Hassel, Jr. posits that Hamlet's indecision stems from his "paralyzing desire for perfect knowing and perfect doing" (Hassel, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 25, no. 3, Autumn, 1994) -- a requirement for action that impedes all action through its obvious impossibility. One cannot have 'perfect knowledge' in order to enact the 'perfect action'. Hamlet cannot come to terms with imperfection, perhaps because his choice may then be the 'wrong' one... and so he never chooses anything at all. Indeed, Hamlet cannot even decide to commit suicide, the most selfish of acts, because he cannot accurately predict what will come thereafter... and whether it might be worse. Hamlet is frozen in his self-absorption with his own perfection. This leads to his indecisiveness and thereby this hubris may be more precisely his tragic flaw.

In his oft-repeated 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, Hamlet argues that "conscience does makes cowards of us all." Our conscience, our inner sense of right and wrong, our personal morality so to speak, is a poor guide according to Hamlet. Why? Because we fear that which we do not know and thereby cannot make a choice which involves the unknown. But, Hamlet incorrectly applies this statement to all humans and further asserts that over-thinking clouds the ability to decide based on unpredictable consequences ("the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought"). Hamlet cannot decide because he does not feel confident he can predict the consequences... or that they will be positive consequences. Yet, the irony of this paralysis is that he thereby is forced into direr unintended consequences of his non-action or his reckless impulsiveness.

Most of us are not as indecisive as Hamlet. Most of us are aware that decisions must be made, even imperfectly, to the best of our ability and knowledge. Most of us have some sense that, as Shakespeare said, "action is eloquence" and that inaction only leads to tragic endings and a sort of self-absorbed non-existence. Yet, the question remains. How do we make difficult choices? Do we use our conscience, 'go by our gut' as some would say?

It would be so convenient if we could 'see all' before acting. In Norman Mailer's Castle in the Forest, D.T. explains how: "Spirits like myself can attend events where they are not present." (Mailer, Castle in the Forest, 2007, p. 78) Yet, D.T. is also employed by Satan. "Yes, I am an instrument. I am an officer of the Evil One." (p. 71) Perhaps this kind of omniscience is only available to those whose souls are sold into just such a slavery. And so we must decide... and decide without 'perfect knowledge', decide without very much knowledge of the real consequences at all.

Caspar David Friedrich, Cloister Cemetery in the Snow, 1819 (destroyed 1945)
Many times people's decisions are their own in appearance only, yet in reality are due to pressure from others or desire to appear one way or another or to get a result out of someone else... or out of guilt. Judith Budnitz explores this last sort of decision in her short story, "Guilt." When his mother suffers a life-threatening heart attack, Arnie is pressured by his aunts (and later his girlfriend and the doctor himself) to give up his own heart to save his mother's life. "What your mother wouldn't do for you," Aunt Fran shames her nephew. "She would do anything for you... anything in the world. And now you won't give just a little back." After much deliberation and no answers to his questions about what will become of his own life, Arnie chooses to donate his heart to his mother. This is how Arnie rationalizes his decision to himself:
"This is what I've realized. All along I thought I'd publish a book, lots of books, get recognition, earn lots of money, support my mother in style in her old age... give her gorgeous grandchildren. I thought that was the way to pay her back for everything I owe her. But now it looks like I have to pay my debts with my heart instead. Under these circumstances, I don't have a choice. I'm almost glad. It seems easier this way. I'll just give her a piece of muscle and then I'll be free of her forever, all my debts paid. One quick operation will be so much easier then struggling to do back to her all the things she thinks she's done for me. Seems like a good bargain."
Not surprisingly, it doesn't end well. After initially accepting the heart, Arnie's mother's health declines again and she ends up dying. Then, rather than Arnie's heart being returned to him, it is donated to a young blond child who has "her whole life ahead of her." His aunts are not pleased with his self-sacrifice but blame him for giving his mother a 'bad heart.' Forced to choose against his will, Arnie winds up with nothing... and mostly likely only a few days left to live of his own life. "I'm sure deep down you want her to have it too, don't you?" the doctor prevails upon Arnie about the decision to give his heart to the young girl... just as have all the others in his life. In the final summation, this doesn't seem like much of a choice... or much of a life.

Sometimes people choose, not because they are forced by others, but in order to influence others. In her short story, "Complicities," Alice Adams writes about Nan, a young girl with undiagnosed bulimia, who goes to stay with the Travises for the summer, "from a desire to 'build her up' ... [and also] an unspoken wish to do good to Mary and Jay, who are known to be 'up against it,' as the phrase went." Nan finds a private power in her thin, bony body and "feels herself possessed of vast and thrilling secrets" though it is not clear if her power derives from some sense of self-accomplishment or more from the attention she is receiving from the minister she babysits for, the pedophilic Dr. Thurston, who 'adores her pale thin body' and removes "her clothes to cover her body with his mouth, kissing her everywhere, breathing as though he might die." The turning point for Nan comes when Mary and Jay host one of their many dinner parties with the exception that, at this particular party, Mary begins singing 'Honeysuckle Rose' in accompaniment to a guest who is playing the tune on the piano.
"She is singing and laughing, embarrassed, but still her voice is rich and confident and sexy -- oh, so sexy! Mary is wearing a new blue dress, or maybe it's old. It is tight, some shiny material, stretched tight over those big breasts and hips. Nan, watching and listening ("-- it's so sweet when you stir it up --"), experiences an extreme and nameless, incomprehensible disturbance. She feels like throwing up, or screaming, or maybe just grabbing up her knees so that her body is a tight-knit ball -- and crying, crying there in her corner, in the semidark. Is this falling in love? Has she fallen in love with Mary? She thinks it is more that she wants to be Mary. She wants to be out there in the light, with everyone laughing and clapping. She wants to be singing, and fat. Oh, how wildly, suddenly, she yearns for flesh, her own flesh. Oh, fat!"
In this case, Nan makes a choice based upon who she wants to be. Yet, rather than figure out herself, she decides to become someone else... much easier. After questioning Jay about the figures of his two previous wives and discovering that they were "on the plump side. I've always liked a little flesh," Nan begins to eat without purging. Mary seems pleased, yet it is surely the case that she doesn't understand Nan's true motivation.

"Slipping back into bed without even brushing her teeth, Nan continues what has been a waking dream, a plan: next summer, when she is sleek and fat-- as fat as Mary is! -- she will come back up here, and Jay will fall madly in love with her. He will follow her everywhere, the way Dr. Thurston used to do. But she will say no, no kissing even. You belong to Mary. And Mary, finding out what Nan has done, will say what a wonderful girl Nan is, how truly good, as well as beautiful, and fat.
And then Nan will leave, probably off with some boyfriend of her own by then, and Mary and Jay will mourn for her. Always. 'If only Nan were with us again this summer,' they will say, for years and years."
This story just proves what Kwame Anthony Appiah has suggested -- that humans are notoriously bad at predicting the consequences of their own actions. It is obvious to us, as readers, that things will not turn out as Nan has planned. Further, her choice was made not on the basis of what is really best for her, but in order to remain in a holding pattern of sorts. She does not receive enough love and attention at home, thereby leading her to seek it elsewhere. In choosing to become healthier and heal her eating disorder, she only really wants to substitute a new attention for the previous attention of Dr. Thurston. Eating disorders, though they have complicated motivations, are often, in part, about pleasing others. And Nan is still stuck in that desire. Her choice is not one of growth or progress but of stasis. She still seeks to be admired for her physicality and does not challenge herself to grow as a person... to do the hard thing despite its difficulty.

Fear plays into most decision-making, I think. Fear certainly relates to the unknown and relatedly, to the unpredictability of the real world outcome of our choices. Life is complicated and these complications tend to weave uncomfortably into our toughest decisions. Appiah writes that: "One reason that life is full of hard decisions is precisely that it's not easy to identify single principles... that aim to tell you what to do." (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, 2006, p. 162) And even if we could, the outcome of terrible decisions can be beneficial in a broad way so that, in hindsight, one would not necessarily alter the original decision.
"What would the world look like if people always spent their money to alleviate diarrhea in the Third World and never on a ticket to the opera (or a donation to a local theater company, gallery, symphony orchestra, library, or what have you?) Well, it would probably be a flat and dreary place. You do not need to say -- as Unger would invite you -- that the lives of children you could have saved were just worth less than your evening at the ballet. That answer presupposes that there is really only one thing that matters: that all values are measurable in a single thin currency of goodness and badness. It was terribly wrong that slaves were worked to death building the pyramids -- or, for that matter, in building the United States -- but it is not therefore terrible that those monuments, or this nation, exist. Not all values have a single measure. If the founders of this nation had dealt only with the most urgent moral problems facing them -- and let us suppose that it was, indeed, slavery -- they would almost certainly not have set in motion the slow march of political, cultural, and moral progress, with all its sallies and its retreats, that Americans justly take pride in." (p. 166)
And so we cannot go by consequences, for we don't know them. We cannot go by what is the 'lesser evil' because morality and decisions do not 'have a single measure.' All is interconnected... and confusing. Thus, we are back to 'our gut.' What does your gut say? It interests me that this phrase is so physical as many decisions relate to our bodies. One of the worst degradations of colonial authorities towards their captive populations was the ability to control what happened to their bodies. As David Horn writes: "The ability of the criminal anthropologist to command the presence of the criminal body, to compel it to be undressed, to be measured, even to yield to painful manipulations, was in many ways an example of the broader relations of power that characterized the practice of medicine -- particularly in prisons -- at the beginning of the twentieth century." (David Horn, "Performing Criminal Anthropology," in Anthropologies of Modernity, Jonathan Xavier Inda (ed.), 2005, p.144) Early medicine, and colonialism, was fundamentally about authority and power.. and who wielded it. Indeed, power (and its relation to the body) has long been a function of executive decision-making. As, Inda explains in his introduction:
"In Machiavelli's thinking, the prince's chief goal in the exercise of power must be to protect and strengthen the principality. This last is understood not as 'the objective ensemble of its subjects and the territory' but instead as 'the prince's relation with what he owns, with the territory he has inherited or acquired, and with its subjects'. The idea here is that sovereignty is first and foremost exercised on a territory and only as a consequence on the subjects who populate it. Indeed, it is the territory that is the fundamental element in Machiavelli's principality. Everything else is a mere variable. This is not to say that subjects do not really matter. They do, but only as it concerns the law." (p.3)
The same can be at work in relationships. Unfortunately, all relationships revolve around power and power-sharing. In healthy relationships, power is shared and controlled by the various strengths of each partner, each person contributing a certain dominance over particular aspects of the relationship. It is not so much that one person has power over the other, but rather that each person has power over structural aspects of the working whole. Thereby, together, the two people build something that is more than the sum of its parts. In an unhealthy relationship, however, much the opposite can be true. One person, oftentimes the male, has (and asserts) direct power over the other partner... over that person's choices and over that person's body. Think about how many women are forced (by physical pressure or threats) into having an abortion when it is not what they really want.

Abortion poses its own challenge as a difficult decision. A human being, equal parts of its parents, begins to grow inside only one of those parents -- the mother. Because of the fact that that child is one-half of the mother and one-half of the father, it seems rational to argue that the decision must be agreed upon equally by the two people. Yet, because of the latter fact (that the baby is only in the mother's body), it also seems rational to argue that it is the mother's decision alone (or, at least, predominantly) since it directly affects her body... and nothing can be more intimate or personal than making a decision about one's own body. So, how is that decision to be made? What if the two parents disagree? To whom does the final decision belong? It seems an irresolvable sort of dilemma. There is also what I would call the 'aftermath' to consider. It is likely that the trauma of an abortion will most strongly affect the woman. It is she that has felt the life begin to grow inside of her. That child is already real to her. And it is she that will feel the actual physical pain of that life being sucked out of her and then the hollowness... literally. For after a woman has an abortion, she will lie in her bed at night and experience the physical trauma of what doctors call phantom limb sensation... the feeling of presence and pain or movement related to such existence but without the actual physical sensation of the limb... or in this case, the baby. And what when that feeling fades? It still leaves a sharp emptiness, one that women often feel horrible guilt for even if they knew they abortion was the 'right decision.' I could go on with this example, the point being that again, the consequences of a decision can hardly guide us. They can be a sort of trap of logic. One cannot say, with certainty, that the existence of a child will wreck his/her life more or less than the non-existence of that child. One cannot give as a reason for abortion that one is 'not ready' because no one is ever ready for the challenges in life that force us to grow. I go back to the first line of Hamlet's famous soliloquy -- "To be or not to be" he says. Yes, because decision-making is about who you are choosing to be more than it is about predicting outcomes that cannot be known.

A while back, I came across a book titled Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal by Rachel Remen, M.D. I am not the type to buy or even peruse 'self-help' books because so often they seem disingenuous, condescending, dominated by the author's personal agenda, or just sappy and cliche. But this is really a book of stories, life stories, stories of real people placed in both recognizable and extraordinary situations. As a physician and listener, Remen has heard and witnessed many such stories. And, being a writer and an English teacher, I believe that stories heal... and help. In her introduction to the chapter titled "Traps," Remen writes:
Those who don't love themselves as they are rarely love life as it is either. Most people have come to prefer certain of life's experiences and deny and reject others, unaware of the value of the hidden things that may come wrapped in plain or even ugly paper. In avoiding all pain and seeking comfort at all costs, we may be left without intimacy or compassion; in rejecting change and risk we often cheat ourselves of the quest; in denying our suffering we may never know our strength or our greatness. Or even that the love we have been given can be trusted.

It is natural, even instinctive to prefer comfort to pain, the familiar to the unknown. But sometimes our instincts are not wise. Life usually offers us far more than our biases and preferences allow us to have. Beyond comfort lie grace, mystery, and adventure. We may need to let go of our beliefs and ideas about life in order to have life." (Remen, 1994, p. 75)
Perhaps the hardest thing about decision-making is that it involves risk and it involves loss. Whatever choice we make, we lose the path of the alternate choice that we did not make. And if we knew 'in our gut' that that was the road we really wanted to go down, then we are left to live with regret... possibly the most painful and debilitating emotion on earth. Regret leads to more self-hatred and then to a more circumscribed world as we search only to do the things that will keep us protected, as Remen suggests, but not the things that will enable us to grow... or the things that will fill our lives with genuine meaning and fullness.

Choices are full of pain. But that doesn't mean we should hide from them or find the least painful solution. Pain can be an opening to meaning. Remen again:
We are always putting the pieces together without knowing the picture ahead of time. I have been with many people in times of profound loss and grief when an unsuspected meaning begins to emerge from the fragments of their lives. Over time, this meaning has proven itself to be durable and trustworthy, even transformative. It is a kind of strength that never comes to those who deny their pain." (p. 170)
I am in the throes of a difficult decision myself. I used to be a sort of mini-Hamlet of decisions. I thought and thought and fretted and researched and thought and thought some more. Two people in my life, on different occasions, have given me advice that has helped. First, when I was a college student, I spent a summer working for U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Alaska. I had been fearful to go in the first place -- not only because it was such a wild and unknown and disconnected place, but more directly because one of the biologists working there that summer had just disappeared, presumed dead by sinking into the mud flats as he crossed one of the glacial melts that fed into the lake where the field site was located. Now my sense that the place was dangerous was confirmed and I feared for my own safety. In hindsight, though, I can see that I used this knowledge as an excuse. I wasn't really afraid that I, too, would die, sucked into the lake. I was just afraid. Afraid of flying alone all the way to Alaska, afraid of what the experience would be life, afraid of whether I would be able to do it, afraid of the unknown and of my own inner strength. Was I brave enough, strong enough to do this? It seemed quite terrifying. This, too, almost makes me laugh when I think of it now. Perhaps because it wasn't really all that scary at all... and also because the experience came to be one of the more formative personal experiences of my life. I not only survived, I loved it there and I loved the person that I was... a person that I had not known I could become. A person I never would have become if I had succumbed to my own fears.

During that same summer, I was invited by U.S. Fish and Wildlife to extend my internship and move to a different field site to work for another month. Again, I was scared. It was unexpected, not in my plans, and again, it was a new place where I couldn't predict what the experience would be like. I agonized for a day or two over the decision. The problem was it was a decision that needed to be made by a particular deadline and that deadline was approaching fast. Should I stay on? Would I like the new site? I had heard there were more bears there -- would I be safe? How would I communicate my extended stay to my parents who were expecting me home in a few days? Finally, unable to decide either way, I went to talk to an older woman who had volunteered to work on the migratory songbird research through Earthwatch. She had become, over the past month, a trusted friend and a sort of surrogate mother to me. The advice she gave me was simple and profound. In so many words she counseled me: "What do I think? I think you should stay. Of course, it is your choice. I cannot tell you if you will enjoy the experience or not. What I can tell you is that, either way, it will be an experience... and we learn from experiences, both the good and the bad." Growth. That was her answer. Whatever happened in my second month out in Alaska, I would grow. Going home, I would merely return to comfort. I stayed. And I have never regretted that decision.

The other person who gave me similar advice was my favorite professor at the University of Michigan when I attended graduate school there. To be completely honest, I do not even remember what I was struggling with... perhaps it was leaving the program after the first year, as that was something I considered but did not end up doing. Perhaps it was something else. I often went to him under the pretense of needing help with something school-related when in reality I wanted some solid life advice. One such time, he told me a story. He had gone to Berkeley for his undergrad degree and he said that whenever he had a hard decision to make, he used to walk down along the rocky shoreline and then climb up to a place high above the sea, sit himself on a rock, and sit and ponder what to do. "Finally one day I realized that I could sit on a rock for days, even weeks. What I needed to do was just act."

Thinking can cloud our decision-making. Or, in Hamlet-esque style, it can paralyze our ability to act. I am still stuck with the question of how we are to make difficult decisions. Rather than trying to predict outcomes, it makes sense to listen: to listen to our past experiences that may provide insight, to listen to others who have had similar experiences, most of all, to listen to our hearts. Yes, our hearts... rather than our gut. I like to believe, in fact I must believe, that there is some knowledge inside of us that can guide us in the 'right' direction. We cannot choose to avoid difficulty or pain; we cannot choose because we do not think we can handle something; we cannot choose for others; we cannot choose based on what we think may or may not happen. We should not choose based on bargaining as Arnie does or on taking what seems the easier route. It can only lead to death, real as Arnie's, or a death of the soul... and living with a dead soul can be worse than literal death. We can only choose in this moment with the self that we are at this time... but we can choose the self we want to become. The self that stands up and faces a challenge head on or the one who hides his head in the sand because of his own fear or self-loathing. I can't imagine that living with your head in the sand will lead to becoming a person that you ever will like. I want to be proud of myself. I know that I can do the thing I do not think I can do... I have done as much in the past many times. In choosing our future selves rather than future consequences, we choose our own destiny. As Kahlil Gibran has said, "We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them." That is because we choose what kind of person faces our own future. We cannot see the amazing view at the top of the mountain without struggling through the forest, sweating and being scraped by branches. We cannot know where we will arrive, but we usually know when we should take that journey.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11 and its legacy

I am surprised. I have read numerous articles in the past week assessing the impact of 9/11 and how it has changed our nation. For the most part, these articles have been cynical and pessimistic concerning how things are 10 years later. Frank Rich wrote about the fractured, exploiting, downsized and downgraded America "where rampaging greed usurped the common good in wartime, [and] the country crashed just as Bush fled the White House..." This disappointing America that Rich asserts we now live in "has little or no resemblance to the generous and heroic America we glimpsed on 9/11 and the days that followed." (Frank Rich, "Day's End," New York Magazine, Sept. 5-12, 2011)

Other editorials and articles I have read express much the same negativity. We are not a nation changed, they say. We are not a people learned, they claim. Is this true, I wonder? Is the legacy we have been left with a legacy of inevitable decline?

Adam Gopnik, writing this week in The New Yorker, addresses the popularity of 'declinism' as a cultural thesis, as a perspective on one's own, and for that matter, all civilizations. Having unconsciously internalized Spengler's tragic view that we are now living in the winter of our civilization's life-span, we exude a sense of appropriate discontent at our sliding downfall which leads to a situation wherein:

" isn't enough to say that the past two decades have been rough in Japan, or that the recession has been hard on Americans, or that the war in Iraq was a folly; the mistakes and the follies have to be shown to be part of some big, hitherto invisible pattern of decline -- and made more vivid by contrast with the patterns of some other, as yet undeclined society." (Adam Gopnik, "Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat," The New Yorker, Sept. 12, 2011, pg. 42) Is the splendor of this story the only thing we have left to celebrate? Is declinism so popular because it aligns with the predominance of cynicism in our age?

Or is the story retold as one of disillusionment and deterioration because we are somehow predisposed -- perhaps even biologically -- to see everything (our lives along with the progress of humanity) as moving towards dissatisfaction, as tomorrow being less somehow than yesterday? Summer fades to fall to winter. People grow old, become less able to do what they could when they were young, don't even believe in the impossible anymore. The flowers in the vase by your window fade and wither. Gopnik finishes his article with the following position:
Declinism is a bad idea, because no one can have any notion of what will happen next. Yet the idea of our decline is emotionally magnetic, because life is a long slide down, and the plateau just passed is easier to love than the one coming up. One of the painful things that smart people learned in the last century is that the future cannot be an object of faith, and only the credulous can see clear auguries in the patterns of the past. We read history not to find predictive patterns but for the same reason that we listen to oldies stations on Sirius radio as we drive back roads on holiday: the old songs matter. Many of them were better than the new songs. That we might not learn anything from them, aside from the obvious truth that what worked then worked for then and what works now works for now, doesn't alter our taste for old music. The long look back is part of the long ride home. We all believe in yesterday. (Gopnik, p. 47)
Has our assessment of 9/11 and its legacy fallen prey to this tendency? Is 'never forget' just another way of saying 'the memory of before was so much more comforting'?

Witnessing death is a life-altering event. In the novel, Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio accidentally becomes a spectator to the shooting of an allegedly crazy and dangerous town member. He reacts in a panic:
I turned and ran. The dark shadows of the river enveloped me as I raced for the safety of home. Branches whipped at my face and cut it, and vines and tree trunks caught at my feet and tripped me. In my headlong rush I disturbed sleeping birds and their shrill cries and slapping wings hit at my face. The horror of darkness had never been so complete as it was for me that night...The river's brown waters would be stained with blood, forever and ever and ever... (Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima, 1972, pp. 22-24)
Witnessing death from afar can have the same effect. The photograph of the falling man terrifies us. The coverage of 9/11 was consumed nonstop by most of us for days on end. I don't think this was totally a case of emotionally numbing. Sure, it seemed unreal and watching it over and over somehow had the potential to make it more so. I think for many of us, though, it was a reminder. A reminder that all had changed. Perhaps the repetition was meant to give us needed time to think about how to handle our brave new world.

I remember being a teenager when the Gulf War began. I was supposed to be on my way to Confirmation class at my church when it was announced on television that the war had officially begun. I stood in shock for a few minutes before melting in tears, finding it impossible to go to class, finding it impossible to think about anything else but how much my world had changed, how much would never be the same, and how to continue. As a child, I never thought I would live in a time of war. Perhaps that was wildly naive. It just seemed to be such a thing of the past. And I was glad for it to stay there. But then it invaded my present, my lifetime, and I began to understand that we are not safe from anything. That may be another reason people watched and rewatched the burning buildings. Just as Oskar realizes at the end of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, we will never be safe again.

Yet, I don't look back and then forward again and see us as a nation declining to its fateful ruination. I do think the 'horror of darkness' is much more complete for us than it was before. Though I know it's cliche to say so, it's in the darkness that we see the brightest light. I don't think the 'generous and heroic America we glimpsed on 9/11' has disappeared. Those people, and others like them, are still here with us, among us. I think the stories of those people are perhaps not being told in the way that they were during the tragedy when we so needed to hear stories of courage and selflessness and sacrifice. Really though, we always need those stories.

Witnessing death is life-altering, yes, but so is witnessing the smallest act of pureness and generosity. One of my favorite Salinger stories is For Esme -- With Love and Squalor. Before being sent to Bavaria as an infantry member fighting in D Day and ending the second World War, Sergeant X meets a young girl, Esme, and her brother when he stops for tea at a cafe in London. She is polite and curious and somehow incredibly touching to the young soldier. Her concern for him seems genuine, but who knows with a twelve or thirteen year old? Esme possesses the strange combination of the genuineness of a child and the empathy of an adult. In the second half of the story, we find X severely traumatized by what he has seen and dangerously hostile towards humanity in which he has lost faith. It seems he might not even make it to tomorrow. But then he receives a small package:
Inside the box, a note, written in ink, lay on top of small object wrapped in tissue paper. He picked out the note and read it.

17, ----- Road
------, Devon
June 7, 1944

Dear Sergeant X,

I hope you will forgive me for having taken 38 days to being our correspondence but, I have been extremely busy as my aunt has undergone streptococcus of the throat and nearly perished and I have been justifiably saddled with one responsibility after another. However I have thought of you frequently and of the extremely pleasant afternoon we spent in each other's company on April 30, 1944 between 3:45 and 4:15 P.M. in case it slipped your mind.
We are all tremendously excited and overawed about D Day and only hope that it will bring about the swift termination of the war and a method of existence that is ridiculous to say the least. Charles and I are both quite concerned about you; we hope you were not among those who made the first initial assault upon the Cotentin Peninsula. Were you? Please reply as speedily as possible. My warmest regards to your wife.

Sincerely yours,

P.S.I am taking the liberty of enclosing my wristwatch which you may keep in your possession for the duration of the conflict. I did not observe whether you were wearing one during our brief association, but this one is extremely water-proof and shock-proof as well as having many other virtues among which one can tell at what velocity one is walking if one wishes. I am quite certain that you will use it to greater advantage in these difficult days than I ever can and that you will accept it as a lucky talisman...   (J.D. Salinger, "For Esme -- With Love and Squalor," Nine Stories, 1948)

X sits stunned with Esme's letter for a long time. Finally, he finds himself feeling sleepy. Though this may seem a strange response or a bizarre ending to the story, it is all too fitting. For, one can only sleep when one feels calm and safe... and that is the gift that Esme has returned to X through her simple act of kindness, through the display of the kind of integrity that X didn't believe in anymore. Certainly, this explains why James Taylor would choose to sing a song titled "You Can Close Your Eyes" at the commemoration of 9/11 at the World Trade Center in NYC. This is the legacy I see from 9/11, a legacy of small acts of great meaning. A legacy of people who genuinely care and remain dedicated to acting generously towards others.

But moments don't close. The past rushes into our present violently, leaving us breathless, raw, and shaking with the renewed newness of it all. Antonio, in Anaya's novel, fears and yet revers the presence of the river. I always struggled with this aspect of the novel, but thinking about it in connection with 9/11 it makes more sense to me. Perhaps, the river is meant to be the movement of all those events that change our lives. They have a great power -- they cut through the very earth beneath us. They course and move away from us... and yet, at the same time, they are always running towards us again. The past is not really in the past for most of us. It is a presence... like a river. A presence that can choke and drown, a presence that can be 'stained with blood', but also a feature that can guide us. "The dark presence of the river was like a shroud, enveloping me, calling to me." (Anaya, p. 256) The presence of 9/11 is our shroud, enveloping us... and yet a living, breathing thing, always calling to us as it courses through the rest of our lives, through the rest of humanity, as a guide.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I am vulnerable, therefore I am... vulnerable.

I used to begin my 9th grade Honors English class with the teaching of an unlikely (yet fitting) pair of short stories -- "A & P" by John Updike and "The Guest" by Albert Camus. Though decidedly different in setting and style, the two stories share the theme of making difficult individual choices in the face of contradictory societal beliefs. In short, they pose the question of how a person defines his own personal ethics... and they imply the bravery required therein and, further, the potentially dangerous consequences of countering the herd mentality.

Recently, though, in rereading these stories, I noticed an altogether different thematic affinity. "A & P" takes place, not surprisingly, in a grocery store of the sort that existed in the late 1950s. Sammy, a local resident in the blue collar New England town, works at the checkout -- a job he got through his parents friendship with the store manager, Lengel, thereby suggesting he doesn't possess a lot of alternative career options. The gist of the story is that three upper-class girls come prancing into the store wearing only their bikins, a passive-aggressive act of rebellion because as Sammy explains, "it's one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with that glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the florescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor." Not to mention the fact that this A & P is "five miles from a beach, with a big summer colony out on the Point, but we're right in the middle of town, and the women generally put on a shirt or shorts or something before they get out of the car into the street."

After ogling and objectifying the girls for the first half of the story, Sammy begins to see the girls as more and more human. At first notice of the girls, he deems their leader, 'Queenie' and describes how she moves through the store: "She didn't look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on slowly, on these long white prima-donna legs. She came down a little hard on her heels, as if she didn't walk in her bare feet that much, putting down her heels and then letting the weight move along to her toes as if she was testing the floor with every step, putting a little deliberate extra action into it. You never know for sure how girls' minds work (do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?) but you got the idea she had talked the other two into coming in here with her, and now she was showing them how to do it, walk slow and hold yourself straight." Clearly, a description that exudes the sort of oozy confidence Sammy assumes to drip from the fingertips of the wealthier residents of the town, like the perspiration on their martini glasses. Yet, when Queenie finally arrives at his register to check out with her items, the reality of her is quite different from the fantasy he projected upon her from a distance.

Queenie?? (aka Botticelli's The Birth of Venus)
Lengel comes over (after all this time that the girls have spent in the store, he picks now to voice his opinion...) and reprimands the girls on their inappropriate dress: "Girls, this isn't the beach." Sammy observes Queenie's reaction which is that she "blushes, though maybe it's just a brush of sunburn I was noticing for the first time, now that she was so close." In short, Sammy recognizes that Queenie is embarrassed, uncomfortable... exactly the opposite of the breezy aplomb and comfort he assumed the girls possessed because of their social class. Queenie, it turns out, is quite vulnerable. So, what does her vulnerability mean to Sammy? This question begins to get at the central dilemma of the story. If the girls are vulnerable, then they are in need of protection. And, what is Sammy willing to risk in order to be the one that provides said protection? This is the question he asks himself. And, as it turns out, he's willing to risk his job and perhaps an even deeper security -- that of belonging in the community, sharing their values and outlook, and potentially never being able to work in that town again. What other prospects does Sammy have? We don't exactly know, but it seems not many. "I don't think you know what you're saying," Lengel tells Sammy after he announces he is quitting. And a few moments later, "You'll feel this for the rest of your life" and Sammy admits "I know that's true" and then when he finds himself alone, unrecognized (for his 'heroism' by the girls who have disappeared): "my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter."

Now, it is Sammy who is the vulnerable one. This was the price of his heroism... a heroism which may have had less to do with standing up for the girls than it did with standing up against the conformist non-reflective groupthink of the 'sheep' that populate his town. Indeed, this analysis is supported by an exchange between Sammy and Lengel:
Sammy: "You didn't have to embarrass them."
Lengel: "It was they who were embarrassing us."
And so there is clearly an 'us vs. them' kind of mindset that is the hardly disguised subtext of this conversation and of the story in general. In making a choice -- one could even call it an ethical choice, a choice that defines a personal morality -- that counters the 'us' with which he belongs, Sammy also inadvertently chooses to exist in a state of vulnerability. Yet, this vulnerable state is preferable to a sort of 'death of conscience' as Sammy suggests after Lengel makes yet another argument against Sammy's seemingly irrational and impetuous action.
"Sammy, you don't want to do this to your Mom and Dad," he tells me. It's true, I don't. But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it.
In Camus's story, the main character, Daru, confronts a similar kind of decision. He has been placed in charge of an Arab prisoner (in French colonial Algeria), very much against his will. He is wary of the captive, yet also not sure he is guilty of an imprisonable offense. After a restless night caused primarily by his internal struggle (whether to resist the colonial orders and government despite his post, whether to believe in the humanity of a person whom his nation views as subhuman, etc), Daru walks the Arab out into the desert, uncuffs him, and points out two roads -- one leading to the jail where he is expected, the other to his compatriots and freedom. He gives the choice to the Arab, which can either be viewed as a meek palming off onto the Arab of a decision he felt too hard to make, or as being a decision in and of itself. With the latter, he chooses to view the other man as an equal capable of making his own decision regarding his future, his freedom, his conscience, his own destiny. In any case, Daru ends up exposing himself to an unanticipated danger. When he returns to his one-room schoolhouse/home, he finds the following written on the blackboard: "Tu as livre notre frere. Tu paieras." ("You have turned in our brother. You will pay.)

Camus believed that a person could create humanity in a meaningless world by self-determination, by making decisions and generally thinking about life outside the confines of the collective, 'sheep' mindset. This makes him a rebel. But with becoming a rebel, as if evident by the above two stories, comes a profound vulnerability. To break against the resounding waves of 'everybody else' means you may be putting yourself in the throes of a rip tide. Yet, looking at things the other way round, vulnerability also means freedom, independent thinking, and conduct directly based on spoken morality which we so rarely witness (though we so often hear spouting forth from the lips of those who could never enact those ethics in practice... perhaps precisely because of the costs and consequences such as becoming vulnerable.)

Vulnerability is an interesting state of being. In the above cases, it means being shunned by the society with which you previously were an agreeable member. However, vulnerability is also tied deeply to our most intimate moments. In his book, Space and Place, Yi-Fu Tuan speaks of moments of intimacy as being more emotionally meaningful than such moments of intentionality as in Updike and Camus.
Intimate experiences lie buried in our innermost being so that not only do we lack the words to give them form but often we are not even aware of them. When, for some reason, they flash to the surface of our consciousness they evince a poignancy that the more deliberate acts -- the actively sought experiences -- cannot match. Intimate experiences are hard to express. A mere smile or touch may signal our consciousness of an important occasion. Insofar as these gestures can be observed they are public. They are also fleeting, however, and their meaning so eludes confident interpretation that they cannot provide the basis for group planning or action. They lack the firmness and objectivity of words and pictures. (Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, 1977, pp. 136-137)
Despite all that intimacy lacks, Tuan explains what it does contain: "Intimate occasions are often those on which we become passive and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, exposed to the caress and sting of new experience." Infants, of course, become the most obvious example. They receive great amounts of intimacy because of their vulnerability; yet, it is also their need to learn such a great deal that requires this sort of vulnerability in the first place. They need to be open to 'the sting of new experiences' or they will never develop or learn new skills. Certainly, it is vulnerability that makes the newly heart-broken so convinced they never want to date again. Vulnerability opens us up to more than just sting... and the experience does not even need to be new. Most of us have our hearts broken many times throughout our lifetimes.

Yet, vulnerability is also the thing that enables us to become especially personal with another human being. There is no way to be open without being vulnerable. Just think of an open window. Yes, one could shot an arrow through that window and kill the unsuspecting observer. But, just as easily, a lover could climb through that window... or even less physically, could call up with words of woo, revealing himself in the dark of naked night.
Romeo: Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized.
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

(moments later... in response to Juliet's question of how he got into her courtyard, especially considering the danger that her family would enact upon him if they found him there)

Romeo: With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls,
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do, that dares love attempt.
Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me.

(Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii)
Perhaps this is part of the tragic flaw of Romeo. Whereas the deepest of intimacies should increase his vulnerability, instead it strengthens his invincibility (or belief therein.) Love cannot, in fact, achieve the impossible. It can only weather the storm if it is strong and prepared enough.

Vulnerability means something further to women. For, as women, we are always, as Natalie Angier puts it, "profoundly and immutably vulnerable to male violence..." (Natalie Angier, Woman, 1999, p. 298) Even for women who go religiously to the gym and really push themselves and can leg press 600 pounds, a man still poses an ever-present physical threat.
Of course, being swift and strong will not protect a woman from being raped or molested. Antifeminists argue the opposite, that women who labor under the illusion of strength and self-sufficiency are the ones who do foolish things, go places they shouldn't, and end up paying for it. In 1989, when a female jogger in Central Park was almost killed by a gang of wilding boys, many people blamed the jogger, an accomplished athlete, for being so reckless as to run in the park at night. But women get attacked in daylight, and in their homes, and when walking from their job to their cars. Obviously there are no guarantees. (Angier, p. 299)
And so vulnerablity is an ever-present state for a woman. I don't mean that in the extreme way that perhaps it sounds. Perhaps it is better to say that women are more familiar with vulnerability... and possibly that explains why women are more openly intimate and can express their feelings much more easily than most men. And yet, ironically, love goes hand-in-hand with violence.... which means that vulnerability is all tied up in the mess... at both ends.

We love for a multitude of reasons (and they are reasons even if some of them are irrational.) "We love for posterity and protection, to preserve the self and to set the self aside... It turns out that to understand love we must think again about aggression, for the pathways of love and aggression are linked, neurologically, hormonally, experientially... When we are madly in love, we are mad. We are sleepless, anxious, panicky. At the thought of the loved one, our heart literally aches and our knees literally weaken. When we see the person, our pupils dilate, our palms sweat, our aching heart pounds. It's as though we were about to give a speech to an audience of thousands. The state of romantic passion is so overwhelming that we can be infatuated with only one person at a time." (Angier, p. 305)

And, so once again, we are vulnerable. Bonding ourselves physically, emotionally to that one person is a great risk. And though love may begin with this kind of delirious passion, it is "in love [that] we seek not just passion but a balm for passion, a cure for our aggression and its sidekicks, anxiety and fear. We seek to feel soothed, safe, and happy." (Angier, p. 306)

Vulnerability is not a curse. It is not even a weakness. It is the opening that opens us up to safety... and happiness. Even in the case of Sammy and Daru. For, despite the social and societal repercussions... and despite whatever threat is posed to their personal safety, they have achieved a sort of inner peace... however inane and simplistic that may sound. At the very least, they become more realistic about life. After seeing the message on the blackboard, Daru "looked at the sky, the plateau and beyond the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had once loved so much, he was alone." Perhaps, this ending sounds negative or pessimistic. From Camus' perspective, however, it is a much more realistic, and thereby healthy, perspective. The landscape that surrounds us is indifferent, so to love it is futile and a waste of time. It is better to see things as they are than to believe that love is all-powerful and then poison yourself when it turns out you couldn't save your beloved.

Vulnerability is scary. But vulnerability is intimate. And ultimately beautiful. And I believe it is the thing that defines and guides our humanity more than anything else. A friend of mine used to speak of the 'tragic beauty' of life. He meant that there was so much pain in life, but without the existence of this pain, there would be no moments of highest ecstasy... and pure beauty. In short, he spoke of all that has to do with vulnerability. Yes, it has costs... and they can be quite high. The cost can, in fact, be your very life. But if we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable, then there is nothing that matters either -- no intimacy, no courage, no principles, no new experiences, no learning, no meaning. If you are vulnerable, you are bound to get wounded. If you are vulnerable, you will also discover life in and amongst other people... and be willing to question what is situated at the heart of your very self. Therein, vulnerability becomes strength.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Google's birthday!

September is Google's birthday month and, in honor of everyone's favorite search engine, here are a selection of some of its celebratory images (or doodles) of other worthy celebrations. Somehow, arriving at Google's homepage and finding a special visual is always a thrill. Perhaps it is the particular visual interpretation. Perhaps it is the fun in needing to guess what special day today is in advance of placing your cursor on the image and having it revealed. One thing that is interesting (and which seems to heighten my sense that we agonize over but also forget the past so quickly) is that the early images always included the very literal version of Google's logo. In time, these became more creative. If they were published in the US or globally, I didn't specify. If they were limited to other countries, I mention those in parentheses. So much we have missed out on! In any case, here is a bit of Google history:

September 17, 2000: 2000 Summer Games in Sydney - Gymnastics
July 4, 2001: Independence Day

February 8, 2002: Olympics Opening Ceremony

May 24, 2002: Dilbert Google Doodle (5 of 5)

August 6, 2002: Andy Warhol's Birthday

February 1, 2003: Chinese New Year

March 6, 2003: Michelangelo's Birthday

June 16, 2003: MC Escher's Birthday
December 22, 2003: Holiday Series (1 of 5)

February 14, 2004: Valentine's Day

March 20, 2004: International Day of Francophonie

August 19, 2004: 2004 Athens Olympic Games - Weight Lifting

October 31, 2004: Happy Halloween

November 2, 2004: US Elections

January 1, 2005: Happy New Year

March 30, 2005: Vincent Van Gogh's Birthday

April 30, 2005: Queen's Day (Netherlands)

June 8, 2005: Frank Lloyd Wright's Birthday

August 15, 2005: Korean Liberation Day (Korea)

September 27, 2005: Google's 7th Birthday

November 17, 2005: Doodle 4 Google Competition: 'Day of the child' by Lisa Wainaina (UK)

January 4, 2006: Louis Braille's Birthday

May 22, 2006: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Birthday

April 22, 2007: Earth Day

August 8, 2007: Countdown to 2008 Beijing Olympics (China)

October 31, 2007: Happy Halloween

January 28, 2008: 50th Anniversary of LEGO Brick

March 20, 2008: First Day of Spring

March 26, 2008: Parametron Computer 1 (Japan)

April 13, 2008: Antonio Meucci (Italy)

April 30, 2008: iGoogle Artist Themes designed by Jeff Koons

May 15, 2008: Anniversary of the first film projection (Spain)

May 16, 2008: Invention of the First Laser

May 18, 2008: 125th Birthday of Walter Gropius

May 29, 2008: Anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest

June 6, 2008: Diego Velazquez's Birthday

June 7, 2008: Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Birthday (UK)

June 21, 2008: First Day of Summer

July 8, 2008: Kaii Higashiyama's Birthday (Japan)

July 28, 2008: Beatrix Potter's Birthday

August 8, 2008: 2008 Beijing Olympic Games - Opening Ceremony

August 14, 2008: 2008 Beijing Olympics - Basketball

September 1, 2008: Filopimin Finos (Greece)

September 10, 2008: Large Hadron Collider

September 14, 2008: Mid-Autumn Festival (Vietnam)

October 20, 2008: Day of Trees (Poland)

October 31, 2008: Happy Halloween! designed by Wes Craven

November 1, 2008: Day of the Dead (Mexico)

November 1, 2008: 1000 Years of The Tale of Genji (Japan)

November 4, 2008: Election Day

November 24, 2008: Portuguese Scientific Culture Day (Portugal)

January 28, 2009: Jackson Pollock's Birthday - Courtesy of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation

February 9, 2009: Lantern Festival (China)

February 12, 2009: Charles Darwin's Birthday

March 2, 2009: Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss! Courtesy of Dr. Seuss Enterprises

May 7, 2009: Alexander Popov's Invention of the Radio (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus)

June 21, 2009: Father's Day (Selected Countries)

July 7, 2009: Tanabata Lover's Holiday (Japan)

July 12, 2009: Birthday of Pablo Neruda

July 14, 2009: Bastille Day (France)

July 23, 2009: Comic Con 2009 - Design and pencil by Jim Lee, ink by Scott Williams, and color by Alex Sinclair

September 15, 2009: Crop Circles

November 2, 2009: Loy Krathong (Thailand)

November 5, 2009: Sesame Street - Cookie Monster

December 18, 2009: Jan Evangelista Purkyne's Birthday (Czech Republic)

January 14, 2010: Festival of Kites (India)

January 15, 2010: Istanbul, Capital of Culture (Turkey)

January 18, 2010: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Day

March 14, 2010: Pi Day

March 17, 2010: St. Patrick's Day

April 1, 2010: April Fools!

May 5, 2010: Patios Cordobeses (Spain)

May 7, 2010: 170th Birthday of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

May 9, 2010: Mother's Day

May 9, 2010: 150th Birthday of J. M. Barrie

May 13, 2010: Father's Day (Germany)

May 21, 2010: PAC-MAN's 30th Anniversary

June 5, 2010: Dennis Gabor's 110th Birthday - Holography support courtesy of Stanford

June 11, 2010: Jacques Cousteau's 100th Birthday

June 29, 2010: Antoine de Saint-Exupery's 110th Birthday (France, Germany)

July 11, 2010: World Cup Final

July 24, 2010: Alfons Mucha's 150th Birthday

August 1, 2010: Swiss National Day (Switzerland)

September 27, 2010: Happy 12th Birthday Google by Wayne Thiebaud

October 21, 2010: Dizzy Gillespie's Birthday

October 31, 2010: 2500 years from the first Marathon (Greece)

October 31, 2010: Birthday of Katsushika Hokusai (Japan)

November 2, 2010: Melbourne Cup (Australia)

November 8, 2010: Discovery of X-Rays

November 25, 2010: Happy Thanksgiving! Doodle by Ina Garten

January 19, 2011: Cezanne's 172nd Birthday

January 20, 2011: 50th Anniversary of JFK's Inaugural

February 8, 2011: Jules Verne's 183rd Birthday

February 19, 2011: Birthday of Constantin Brancusi

April 3, 2011: 119th Anniversary of the First Documented Ice Cream Sundae

April 26, 2011: 226th Birthday of John James Audubon

April 27, 2011: Freedom Day (South Africa)

April 29, 2011: The Wedding of Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton

June 9, 2011: Les Paul's 96th Birthday

June 12, 2011: Dia Dos Namorados (Brazil)

July 20, 2011: Gregor Mendel's 189th Birthday

August 2, 2011: Celebrating the Wildebeest Migration - by Samuel Guthui (Tanzania, Kenya)

August 4, 2011: Roberto Burle Marx's 102nd Birthday (Brazil)

August 6, 2011: Lucille Ball's 100th Birthday

Many of Google's doodles have become interactive. Today, for instance, is an amazing journey through Freddie Mercury's life and music. Check it out!!