Writing in the First Person

My brain is turning soft. It’s not that I’ve forgotten to update my 2004 film viewing and reading lists; it’s that I have, for all intents and purposes, abandoned my intellectual life. I don’t have the energy for it. Or the time. Or — and this is the big one — the attention span. And it’s starting to wear me down.

I imagine that, if I were to pick up any book about the mourning process, it would confirm what I strongly suspect: that I’m in some classic first stage (denial, maybe?); that my conscious and subconscious are pitted in a fierce battle for control. As usual, the conscious mind thinks it’s winning — and by all appearances it is doing so — but here’s the thing: I don’t have a short attention span. I’m the guy who starts a book and finishes it the same day. I’m the guy who spends his free time watching ridiculously slow films about Danish farmers and street vendors and agnostic ministers. But I’ve suddenly become the guy who can’t sit still, who can’t even make it through a one-hour TV show, who must be doing at all times. And so something must be wrong.

Here are some of the ways that I’ve encountered death lately:

  • Last week I listened to “The Few Who Stayed: Defying Genocide in Rwanda” from American Radio Works. Making sense of the murder of 800,000 people in the spring of 1994 is about as easy as trying to understand why news from Sudan is buried in today’s editorial page.
  • My wife, a forensic artist, has begun work on a new case — reconstructing the face of an unidentified man found floating in a nearby river. Because of the case, I often open my email to find emotionally-detached, clinical discussions of the “business” of forensic anthropology — not to mention the requisite photos. My wife’s work, by the way, will be featured in a two-part series by a local TV news crew, who are thrilled to have such a hot exclusive for sweeps. They will, no doubt, describe her as CSI: Knoxville.
  • Names of the Dead. When I scan the daily headlines at the Times, I always take a second or two to read the names and the ages and the hometowns of the American soldiers who have died.
  • And, of course, I think daily of my mother- and father-in-law, who were killed in January, and of my wife, who was made an orphan at too young an age.

Strangely, the names of the dead in Iraq have the strongest emotional pull on me right now — partly because they remind me of my aunt and uncle who are still mourning their son’s death in Grenada twenty years ago, partly because they remind me of how disastrously misguided America’s foreign policy is right now, and partly because, now that we’re in Iraq, I don’t know how we’ll get out. History is not on our side.

The tragedy of Africa is too great to even contemplate, so, like most comfortable Americans, I don’t. Even during my weekly ESL class, when I sit across a table from refugees, I distance myself from their past, from what they’ve seen and what I cannot even imagine. Surely things like that don’t really happen. Not in 2004. Not when a Christian nation like America exercises such a powerful influence on the world. I refuse to acknowledge it.

But I’m refusing to acknowledge a lot these days. I posted this last August for a friend whose father had died unexpectedly. It’s from Anne Lamott’s essay, “Ladders,” from Traveling Mercies.

Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit. Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can’t be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn’t work for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering.

But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.

I hope she’s right.