Don’t speak to me of heartbreak, I have an argument
with habits of metaphor—it’s not the heart
In April I brought tulips white
pale green and orange in from the garden
you mean but the ineffable—character soul
locus of feeling—don’t tell me that muscle
and with his fine pen he drew page after
page of delicate ravishing tulips
is made whole by breaking—the thready beat
made stronger if ravaged, then repaired
In June plush peonies named for Paean
the physician to ancient gods
Could we salvage joy from each day loosening
Then July I brought the overabundance
of the Oriental lily’s perfume
our ravenous hold on the world?
his hand transfigured the rich ivory paper
Where could it be written,
to a garden room various edenic alive
why would anyone say, why would
a rabbi teach the heart survives by breaking?
August now and great maples tall oaks darken
and cool the garden so flowers know not to thrive
that in black ink my love may still shine bright
After the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday, we recalled this 2004 Slate piece from the author George Saunders, who explains and defends the many inhabitants of the world who neither cause harm nor wish to see harm done to their fellow human beings in the name of an abstract ideal. The article is reprinted below.
Last Thursday, my organization, People Reluctant To Kill for an Abstraction, orchestrated an overwhelming show of force around the globe.
At precisely 9 in the morning, working with focus and stealth, our entire membership succeeded in simultaneously beheading no one. At 10, Phase II began, during which our entire membership did not force a single man to suck another man’s penis. Also, none of us blew himself/herself up in a crowded public place. No civilians were literally turned inside out via our powerful explosives. In addition, at 11, in Phase III, zero (0) planes were flown into buildings.
During Phase IV, just after lunch, we were able to avoid bulldozing a single home. Furthermore, we set, on roads in every city, in every nation in the world, a total of zero (0) roadside bombs which, not being there, did not subsequently explode, killing/maiming a total of nobody. No bombs were dropped, during the lazy afternoon hours, on crowded civilian neighborhoods, from which, it was observed, no post-bomb momentary silences were then heard. These silences were, in all cases, followed by no unimaginable, grief-stricken bellows of rage, and/or frantic imprecations to a deity. No sleeping baby was awakened from an afternoon nap by the sudden collapse and/or bursting into flame of his/her domicile during Phase IV.
In the late afternoon (Phase V), our membership focused on using zero (0) trained dogs to bite/terrorize naked prisoners. In addition, no stun guns, rubber batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, or bullets were used, by our membership, on any individual, anywhere in the world. No one was forced to don a hood. No teeth were pulled in darkened rooms. No drills were used on human flesh, nor were whips or flames. No one was reduced to hysterical tears via a series of blows to the head or body, by us. Our membership, while casting no racial or ethnic aspersions, skillfully continued not to rape, gang-rape, or sexually assault a single person. On the contrary, during this late-afternoon phase, many of our membership flirted happily and even consoled, in a nonsexual way, individuals to whom they were attracted, putting aside their sexual feelings out of a sudden welling of empathy.
As night fell, our membership harbored no secret feelings of rage or, if they did, meditated, or discussed these feelings with a friend until such time as the feelings abated, or were understood to be symptomatic of some deeper sadness.
It should be noted that, in addition to the above-listed and planned activities completed by our members, a number of unplanned activities were completed by part-time members, or even nonmembers.
In London, a bitter homophobic grandfather whose grocery bag broke open gave a loaf of very nice bread to a balding gay man who stopped to help him. A stooped toothless woman in Tokyo pounded her head with her hands, tired beyond belief of her lifelong feelings of anger and negativity, and silently prayed that her heart would somehow be opened before it was too late. In Syracuse, New York, holding the broken body of his kitten, a man felt a sudden kinship for all small things.
Even declared nonmembers, it would appear, responded to our efforts. In Chitral, Pakistan, for example, a recent al-Qaida recruit remembered the way an elderly American tourist once made an encouraging remark about his English, and how, as she made the remark, she touched his arm, like a mother. In Gaza, an Israeli soldier and a young Palestinian, just before averting their eyes and muttering insults in their respective languages, exchanged a brief look of mutual shame.
Who are we? A word about our membership.
Since the world began, we have gone about our work quietly, resisting the urge to generalize, valuing the individual over the group, the actual over the conceptual, the inherent sweetness of the present moment over the theoretically peaceful future to be obtained via murder. Many of us have trouble sleeping and lie awake at night, worrying about something catastrophic befalling someone we love. We rise in the morning with no plans to convert anyone via beating, humiliation, or invasion. To tell the truth, we are tired. We work. We would just like some peace and quiet. When wrong, we think about it awhile, then apologize. We stand under awnings during urban thunderstorms, moved to thoughtfulness by the troubled, umbrella-tinged faces rushing by. In moments of crisis, we pat one another awkwardly on the back, mumbling shy truisms. Rushing to an appointment, remembering a friend who has passed away, our eyes well with tears and we think: Well, my God, he could be a pain, but still I’m lucky to have known him.
This is PRKA. To those who would oppose us, I would simply say: We are many. We are worldwide. We, in fact, outnumber you. Though you are louder, though you create a momentary ripple on the water of life, we will endure, and prevail.
Resistance is futile.
From Rob Hardies, my pastor at All Souls Church, Unitarian comes this:
Though the dry leaves still cling to the oak tree’s branches outside my study window, below I see the first green shoots of crocus pushing up through the dark earth. March is the month of the earth’s return to life-it’s the month the earth bounces back. In so doing, she reminds us of an important quality of the soul-resilience. Resilience is our ability to bounce back from loss, setback or despair. After love, it is perhaps the most important human attribute. Resilience will be the subject of our reflection in worship and in small groups this month, and to start us off I offer you this poem by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz.
after chopping off all the arms that reached out to me;
after boarding up all the windows and doors;
after filling all the pits with poisoned water;
after building my house on the rock of no,
inaccessible to flattery and fear;
after cutting off my tongue and eating it;
after hurling handfuls of silence
and monosyllable of scorn at my loves;
after forgetting my name;
and the name of my birthplace;
and the name of my race;
after judging and sentencing myself
to perpetual waiting,
and perpetual loneliness, I heard
against the stones of my dungeon of syllogisms,
the humid, tender, insistent
onset of spring.
Taking a cue from the Yahoo C.E.O. Marissa Mayer’s policy of banning working from home, I ordered all New Yorker cartoonists to get their lazy, coffee-sipping, channel-surfing, Web-browsing, Netflix-streaming, newspaper-riffling, magazine-flipping, vacantly-staring-into-space selves into the office.
I explained to them, quoting the leaked Yahoo memo, that “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”
The cartoonists responded by sipping their coffee and staring vacantly into space before they made the insightful decision to hold an impromptu team meeting in the Condé Nast cafeteria. Fortified by the Condé comestibles, they came back and requested a meeting in my office. But my office was too small to hold them all, so we repaired to a hallway known to be conducive to insights. And, sure enough, we had one. And it was that coffee sipping, channel surfing, Web browsing, Netflix streaming, newspaper riffling, magazine flipping, and vacantly staring into space were the time-honored prerequisites for cartoon creation, and that they could only find a congenial home in a home. I felt certain that many more insights would have come pouring out of that hallway if not for the fact that the fire marshal came by and ordered us to disperse. Which we did. The cartoonists headed home, and, following their lead, so did I, which is where I’m writing this memo, a cup of coffee in one hand and a remote in the other.
Truly, Madly, Guiltily, by Ayelet Waldman, NYTimes, March 27, 2005
I have been in many mothers’ groups – Mommy and Me, Gymboree, Second-Time Moms – and each time, within three minutes, the conversation invariably comes around to the topic of how often mommy feels compelled to put out. Everyone wants to be reassured that no one else is having sex either. These are women who, for the most part, are comfortable with their bodies, consider themselves sexual beings. These are women who love their husbands or partners. Still, almost none of them are having any sex.
There are agreed upon reasons for this bed death. They are exhausted. It still hurts. They are so physically available to their babies – nursing, carrying, stroking – how could they bear to be physically available to anyone else?
But the real reason for this lack of sex, or at least the most profound, is that the wife’s passion has been refocused. Instead of concentrating her ardor on her husband, she concentrates it on her babies. Where once her husband was the center of her passionate universe, there is now a new sun in whose orbit she revolves. Libido, as she once knew it, is gone, and in its place is all-consuming maternal desire. There is absolute unanimity on this topic, and instant reassurance.
Except, that is, from me.
I am the only woman in Mommy and Me who seems to be, well, getting any. This could fill me with smug well-being. I could sit in the room and gloat over my wonderful marriage. I could think about how our sex life – always vital, even torrid – is more exciting and imaginative now than it was when we first met. I could check my watch to see if I have time to stop at Good Vibrations to see if they have any exciting new toys. I could even gaze pityingly at the other mothers in the group, wishing that they too could experience a love as deep as my own.
But I don’t. I am far too busy worrying about what’s wrong with me. Why, of all the women in the room, am I the only one who has not made the erotic transition a good mother is supposed to make? Why am I the only one incapable of placing her children at the center of her passionate universe?
WHEN my first daughter was born, my husband held her in his hands and said, “My God, she’s so beautiful.”
I unwrapped the baby from her blankets. She was average size, with long thin fingers and a random assortment of toes. Her eyes were close set, and she had her father’s hooked nose. It looked better on him.
She looked like a newborn baby, red and scrawny, blotchy faced and mewling. I don’t remember what I said to my husband. Actually I remember very little of my Percocet- and Vicodin-fogged first few days of motherhood except for someone calling and squealing, “Aren’t you just completely in love?” And of course I was. Just not with my baby.
I do love her. But I’m not in love with her. Nor with her two brothers or sister. Yes, I have four children. Four children with whom I spend a good part of every day: bathing them, combing their hair, sitting with them while they do their homework, holding them while they weep their tragic tears. But I’m not in love with any of them. I am in love with my husband.
It is his face that inspires in me paroxysms of infatuated devotion. If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother. I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children.
An example: I often engage in the parental pastime known as God Forbid. What if, God forbid, someone were to snatch one of my children? God forbid. I imagine what it would feel like to lose one or even all of them. I imagine myself consumed, destroyed by the pain. And yet, in these imaginings, there is always a future beyond the child’s death. Because if I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my children, God forbid, I would still have him, my husband.
But my imagination simply fails me when I try to picture a future beyond my husband’s death. Of course I would have to live. I have four children, a mortgage, work to do. But I can imagine no joy without my husband.
I don’t think the other mothers at Mommy and Me feel this way. I know they would be absolutely devastated if they found themselves widowed. But any one of them would sacrifice anything, including their husbands, for their children.
Can my bad motherhood be my husband’s fault? Perhaps he just inspires more complete adoration than other husbands. He cooks, cleans, cares for the children at least 50 percent of the time.
If the most erotic form of foreplay to a mother of a small child is, as I’ve heard some women claim, loading the dishwasher or sweeping the floor, then he’s a master of titillation.
He’s handsome, brilliant and successful. But he can also be scatterbrained, antisocial and arrogant. He is a bad dancer, and he knows far too much about Klingon politics and the lyrics to Yes songs. All in all, he’s not that much better than other men. The fault must be my own.
I am trying to remember those first days and weeks after giving birth. I know that my sexual longing for my husband took a while to return. I recall not wanting to make love. I did not even want to cuddle. At times I felt that if my husband’s hand were to accidentally brush against my breast while reaching for the saltshaker, I would saw it off with the butter knife.
Even now I am not always in the mood. By the time the children go to bed, I am as drained as any mother who has spent her day working, car pooling, building Lego castles and shopping for the precisely correct soccer cleat. I am also a compulsive reader. Put together fatigue and bookwormishness, and you could have a situation in which nobody ever gets any. Except that when I catch a glimpse of my husband from the corner of my eye – his smooth, round shoulders, his bright-blue eyes through the magnification of his reading glasses – I fold over the page of my novel.
Sometimes I think I am alone in this obsession with my spouse. Sometimes I think my husband does not feel as I do. He loves the children the way a mother is supposed to. He has put them at the center of his world. But he is a man and thus possesses a strong libido. Having found something to usurp me as the sun of his universe does not mean he wants to make love to me any less.
And yet, he says I am wrong. He says he loves me as I love him. Every so often we escape from the children for a few days. We talk about our love, about how much we love each other’s bodies and brains, about the things that make us happy in our marriage.
During the course of these meandering and exhilarating conversations, we touch each other, we start to make love, we stop.
And afterward my husband will say that we, he and I, are the core of what he cherishes, that the children are satellites, beloved but tangential.
He seems entirely unperturbed by loving me like this. Loving me more than his children does not bother him. It does not make him feel like a bad father. He does not feel that loving me more than he loves them is a kind of infidelity.
And neither, I suppose, should I. I should not use that wretched phrase “bad mother.” At the very least, I should allow that, if nothing else, I am good enough. I do know this: When I look around the room at the other mothers in the group, I know that I would not change places with any of them.
I wish some learned sociologist would publish a definitive study of marriages where the parents are desperately, ardently in love, where the parents love each other even more than they love the children. It would be wonderful if it could be established, once and for all, that the children of these marriages are more successful, happier, live longer and have healthier lives than children whose mothers focus their desires and passions on them.
BUT even in the likely event that this study is not forthcoming, even in the event that I face a day of reckoning in which my children, God forbid, become heroin addicts or, God forbid, are unable to form decent attachments and wander from one miserable and unsatisfying relationship to another, or, God forbid, other things too awful even to imagine befall them, I cannot regret that when I look at my husband I still feel the same quickening of desire that I felt 12 years ago when I saw him for the first time, standing in the lobby of my apartment building, a bouquet of purple irises in his hands.
And if my children resent having been moons rather than the sun? If they berate me for not having loved them enough? If they call me a bad mother?
I will tell them that I wish for them a love like I have for their father. I will tell them that they are my children, and they deserve both to love and be loved like that. I will tell them to settle for nothing less than what they saw when they looked at me, looking at him.
This is the kind of reader email that says more than any professional writer could ever hope to express. Yes, it’s on gun control. But it’s also about the human soul and the damage that tens of thousands of deaths can do – far beyond the actual victims.
I read about your scary childhood experience and I had to leave work due to the sick feeling in my gut. The sick feeling has been building, maybe since Sandy Hook, but your story forced to write about something I had never written about before.
I accidentally killed my best friend when I was 15. Shot my best friend of eight years a week before we started high school. I was sitting in his room holding his rifle across my legs as he talked about how he had looked it up in some collectors guide and it was worth more than when he got it (Christmas or birthday or something). All the sudden there was a gigantic explosion and the rifle flew off my legs and I looked over as my friend fell over holding his gut and the whole world was tinted a hazy red.
It stayed tinted red for I don’t how long-weeks, months, a year? I sat through hours-maybe an entire day of getting the good cop/bad cop thing down at the police station:
“Did you know the gun was loaded?”-Of course not.
“Why was the gun loaded?”-I don’t know. I didn’t know it was loaded okay?
“Was the safety on?”-I don’t know, it’s all a haze. I can’t remember.
“Was your finger on the trigger? I mean that style of gun is hard to hold unless your finger is by the trigger.”- I don’t know, I don’t know, I mean it must have been, why would the gun go off if it wasn’t.
“Were you two arguing?”-Are you kidding? Of course not…
I don’t know what I said, and the actual events were a blur then and they are a blur now, but eventually they let me go to the hospital. My friend hung around for a couple days and I wandered around in my red, miserable, bad dream. He could squeeze my hand for a while. They let me cry for a while with his weird, bloated-looking body when he finally wasn’t hanging around and he wasn’t squeezing my hand.
There was a funeral. I think a day or two of school was cancelled. I stood there in a stupor, red-tinted, and hugged a million people. People knew we were best friends. My friend and I’s families hugged and cried a bunch; we promised to not be strangers ‘cuz I was still a member of their family (I visited them one more time).
Eventually I was back and school and I imagine people looked at me weird for a while; I was in such a daze I don’t really remember. There was never any sort of legal action. I went and saw some sort of therapist a couple times. They asked me some textbook questions and I gave them some short answers and I guess they were satisfied. I somehow got through that year doing normal activities and then the next one. At some point I wasn’t in the daze anymore, but nothing was ever the same. Over twenty years later I think about it at some point every single day.
So yeah, I don’t really want to be surrounded by people carrying guns. And it isn’t just that I had a terrible experience with guns. I also don’t want them around because I grew up with the Gun “Tribe”. Many of the loudest, baddest, sharpshot, ninja, gun-owners (and part-time Constitutional Scholars) I know are the biggest knuckleheads of my past:
There is the Facebook “friend” from high school who huffed a lot of gas and never got higher than a C in any class (especially history/social studies)? Yep, he is now an (unofficial) sniper in the anti-fascist militia and a legal expert. He changed his avatar to an AR-15. Now watch this Sandy Hook Truther video he just posted!
There is the uncle who has held like 80 different jobs, thought that removing lead from gasoline was Communism, and used to send me every paranoid conspiracy theory chain-email ever made until my mocking responses finally made him stop? Yep, finally got an (unpaid) job as Constitutional Scholar, varmit-destroyer, and protector of free society.
There is the cousin-in-law who got a job as a cop and then was quietly let go like two weeks later for reasons no one will tell me, and who now plays shoot-em up video games all day. His new milita-member duty is mocking people who call a “magazine” a “clip” and informing them that if they can’t name all the parts of weapon correctly, they have no business having opinions about it.
Don’t get me wrong. I grew up in small town Rocky Mountains. Everyone had guns, and they weren’t all like the characters above. Some people have a rifle they only pull out of a safe in hunting season. The problem is the characters above are the ones that have the 10 gun arsenals.
Writing this, I realize that a lot my sick feeling has to do with the gun control issue that is now on the table. I think of all the promising measures that have been proposed (I think limiting magazine size is the Holy Grail) and then I think about our terrible House of Representatives, Western Democratic Senators who want their gilded “A” ratings from the NRA (that “responsible” lobbying group who has a repeat poacher and admitted pedophile on their Board), and the millions of loud deadbeats (like the ones I list above) who don’t have anything better to do than scream at congressional aides over the phone. The thought of all this going very badly, and what the results of that could be, makes me sick to my stomach.