One of my new favorite authors, Claire Bidwell Smith, wrote this week’s Letter in the Mail and in it she spoke of a moment when, seeing a hummingbird—her madeleine for thoughts of her father—she realized that her woes were fleeting and, in light of those experienced by her late father, insignificant. She decided that she was a coward for granting them purchase. Now clearly Ms. Smith is no coward (although we all have our cowardly moments), but she surely felt like one, and we all do, at times. Or should.
That’s why standing there this morning, on the lip of the continent, staring at that hummingbird and thinking about my father, I felt like a coward. Like I just don’t know how to just grit my teeth and commit to a thing. Like I don’t know the first thing about how to be simply grateful that I’m alive. Maybe that’s what’s missing in our generation. Maybe we just feel too safe, too secure. We have too much stuff and no threat of any of it disappearing anytime soon.
I’ve been reading Chris Bohjalian’s new book, The Sandcastle Girls (which I will write more about when I’ve finished.) Much of the story takes place in Aleppo, Syria during the Armenian genocide. One of the first scenes will perhaps stay with me forever. It describes the latest arrival of a group of a hundred or so refugees into the town square. Elizabeth Endicott, a young aid worker from Boston, takes them at first to be Africans, old women whose skin is wrinkled and blackened from sun and dirt and peels from their backs like snakeskin. As they drag their naked bodies along the street, their hair matted and their bodies so emaciated that their “breasts are lost to their ribs,” and the “bones of their hips protrude like baskets,” she realizes they are not old women at all, but young women and even children, who curl up on their sides and remind her of the “dead seahorses she once saw on the beach at Cape Cod.”
A hauntingly powerful scene. A fictional scene based on real events which occurred not that very long ago, and not unlike scenes you might see today… oh, not here where the sounds of lawnmowers groan as we make bright plans for summer, here where our contact with horror is limited to fiction which we choose and snippets of others’ realities flashed across the screen. We tear up momentarily and then go on to other things, to our things. We have so much to do, so very busy, no time to worry about anyone but ourselves.
The book and now the letter got me thinking of the way we inhabit our safe little worlds, spared such scenes. Previous generations here knew war and its horrors, and some still do, but on foreign soul, in other battles. I often speak of my admiration for courage, but it’s usually referring to the way a writer confronts his or her past, or a filmmaker paints on screen images that move us. Courage is being honest or true. But there are other kinds of courage perhaps foreign to us, forgotten.
I know people who have lived amidst violence. The oddest thing about it is how they grow accustomed to it, to the fact that they have to go to work passing corpses alongside the road, or that they have to keep their angry dogs hungry and tied up so they will alert them of late-night visitors and wake them for that dreaded knocking on the door. What amazes me the most about people who live through terrible things is the way they do just that… they cry, they laugh, fall in and out of love and find a way to not only exist but to survive not only in body but with heart and soul. That is courage. And perhaps it is a courage that we all lack now, our lives seeming so important yet bereft of the realization that what makes them soberingly and gloriously important lies not in the silly details but in the fact that we are here at all.
You need to lose to gain. To feel pain in order to feel the bliss of health. To feel the heavy charge of thunder and the rage of lightning in order to appreciate the sun which follows.
Claire Bidwell Smith’s father, who fought in World War II and returned from it a different man, said to her once when when the two of them, on one of their drives, paused before the house where he’d lived long ago, “Well, kiddo … life is a wondrous thing.”