Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Notebook Entry: Anchorage, Alaska, November 2008
I have heard something on the radio that has stripped me down again to raw muscle and sinew, all the way down to the inelegant underpinnings of being human, down to some raw, flayed-open part that causes a constriction in my chest. Under physical duress, I might’ve called this “heart pain.” But I am familiar with human anatomy and I know where the heart lies in the dark, damp ark of the human body. This is not that kind of heart. Not that kind of pain.
Many atrocities have come to light over the last years. What is one more? There is always some bad news traveling at light speed towards us these days. And telling myself this allows me to go on doing whatever it is that I do on any ordinary, sunny, sub-zero day here in Anchorage, Alaska. Things like driving up into the hills to get a wider view of my particular corner of the world, a view that makes my own personal sorrows seem small and womanish and of no real consequence when standing in a landscape that I know will endure long past the time I am gone down again to dust and ash. Things like getting a free turkey at the Fred Meyer for buying $100.00 of groceries this week. Things like going to teach a class of young writers tonight. Things like facing down my body’s slow and certain decay and the mind’s growing grief that I will have to leave all this too soon, too soon. Even about that, I have a tale to tell: I’ve had a fabulously-rich life, not a moment of it was waste, and I’d choose it all over again even knowing what I’d come to in the end. Every word of that tale is true. What was it Horace wrote and Dryden translated: “What has been, has been / and I have had my hour.”
I have had my hour.
But what is their hour like, any one of those doctors and nurses, lawyers and students whose countrymen come upon them now daily or nightly, in stealth, who abduct them, who bind their hands and feet and then systematically torture and kill them? At 7:40 a.m. Alaska Standard Time, I hear of their last hour. Another thirty bodies have been found. Thirty. More than the students in my class. Double almost. Three times more people than those who waited with me in line this morning at Starbuck’s. Twice as many as the elementary school children who waited raucously at the corner this morning for the school bus.
Thirty. Gone now, just like that. And by “just like that,” I mean exactly like that: the reporter said that the instrument of torture was an ordinary household electric drill. How does the mind steel itself against that? What story can I tell myself this morning that will allow me to go on believing in the inherent goodness of mankind, or the mercy of God? What shall I say to myself that might allow me to go on today, or tomorrow, or the next, quietly sewing a collar-button on my husband’s dress shirt as if it mattered, or to stand idly drinking my coffee at the sunny window, or taking up my pencil to write?
Maybe because I am a writer, I force myself to imagine, somewhere behind my eyes, the whole scene of it. I try to fathom it, the picture of it, that kind of torture. I can imagine the burnt-out house, somewhere in the Middle East. I can almost see the faces of those who are being brought, bound, to their torturer and executioner. I can even imagine the face of that one - or ones: a human face. A face that resembles, in many ways, a kindly uncle or neighbor, a face not unlike my own. But every time I get to the whirring drill bit – to the hands of the man who holds it to the kneecaps or the soft temple of another person, every time I get to the fact of the waiting flesh and bone at the other end of the spinning bit – I recoil. My mind cannot enter it. My imagination refuses the assignment. The stage goes dark.
Yet, for all my failure to imagine it, it happens. Those thirty bodies are testimony to it: a grisly “body of evidence” which would stand in any court in this country and make of those dyings a crime against humanity.
What shall we call it, this act of torture-unto-death? How many bodies must be unearthed before we put some name to it? Thirty? Thirty, plus the one whose hand holds the drill? Thirty, plus the one who holds the drill, plus the one who turns, briefly, away?
This too is part of my hour here on earth, isn’t it?
Maybe I was right earlier, when I said that what I felt this morning was “heart pain.” Maybe it isn’t high cholesterol or high blood pressure or AIDS or smallpox or depression that is going to do us all in. Maybe acne and wrinkles and PMS and menopause and erectile dysfunction aren’t what is making us feel so bad. Maybe the Doomsday we’ve been so certain will come is already upon us. Maybe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have ridden through town and we slept through the thundering hooves.
Or maybe all those old doomsday stories got it wrong. Maybe the only thing we can tell ourselves anymore is that we are making, or have made already, a world in which we can no longer live and remain fully human and humane. Maybe the mind cannot find a suitable place to lay something like this in among the other memories and dreams without it affecting those, disturbing the order of the mind. Maybe something like this doesn't yet have resonance in either the brain's center for language or for sight. Maybe things like this are stored elsewhere in our bodies: somewhere far from where we might be forced to confront them: in the extremities, perhaps; at least the name seems appropriate. Or maybe there is no safe way for us to know, just know, and that's why we look away, why we resume – or try to – the daily, mundane rituals of our lives, to stay busy, to move fast, move past. Or maybe it's just that our hearts cannot bear the news from anywhere anymore.
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