Narratives for Survival #1

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So I found this meme on Facebook the other day, not long after Umberto Eco’s death, and I thought that it might just kick my writer’s block in the pants. “To survive, you must tell stories.” I tend to look at this blog as a “platform” for my books of poetry that I am going to be publishing in the next few years, a way to “build an audience,” and I imagine that many of my readers who are also bloggers feel a similar way.

But I often get dragged off course, usually by popular culture narratives with kickass women characters who lead, make choices and decisions, fight, kill, deal with the trauma, and work to balance the things and people they love with the things and people they have to deal with in often less than loving ways. These are the narratives I am magnetically drawn to.

Clearly, they are not the only important narratives. I have a shelf of books on World War II and the Holocaust because memory and testimony are crucial types of narratives for survival. I don’t write about these much because I don’t have firsthand knowledge, but I am going to be giving my writing students a speech by Elie Wiesel to read because they might take his thoughts on “The Perils of Indifference” better than they would take such thoughts from me.

There are also meta-stories: stories about how stories affected you, as we often hear when we start talking about representation in popular culture narratives. So Whoopi Goldberg has often talked about the galvanizing affect seeing Nichelle Nichols playing Lt. Uhura on Star Trek had on her when she was a little girl, suddenly realizing that a black woman could be a leader rather than just a servant. So clearly it is just as important to consider how we tell the stories we tell.

But there are other narratives too, the stories we tell ourselves when we are too tired to do the laundry or too hopeless to fall asleep at three in the morning, or too optimistic to consider consequences or too busy to separate the recycling. Sometimes they serve us well, reminding us to save our energy for the big things or to hold on to the small things until we have the resources to work for the bigger things. And sometimes they just get in the way. So maybe it is not only about what stories we tell and how we tell them, but also how we use them and how they serve us and others or do not.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 70 Years Later

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The funny thing about traveling through Japan, as a Caucasian, is that you are automatically assumed to be American, whether you are or not. Normally, that simply translates into children waving at you and shouting, “Haro! Haro!” (i.e., Hello! Hello!), but in some places it is extremely uncomfortable, primarily in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the one hand, nowhere else have I felt so visibly and problematically American. I walk around the peace parks, looking at the dioramas of the damage done and the absolute nothing that was left in so many places, and I think, “My people did this.” On the other hand, the people of those two cities have so internalized the need for world peace that they are powerfully forgiving. They know that their government did some fairly unforgivable things also during World War II. One of the elderly women I met when I lived in Japan, 1990-1992, told me of the kindness of the American GIs during the occupation, and how one even managed to get eggs and flour so she could make her sister a birthday cake. War. Humans. Ridiculous acts of violence and tiny acts of kindness.

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Pilgrim

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Something about this breeze

damply fresh at 4 a.m. touching

my face as I stand on the concrete

platform, sway slightly, wait

for a train to take me, oh, anywhere

really, but especially south, southwest

to Nagasaki, international city,

city of the other bomb, city of pigeons

masquerading as doves.

.

Every bird is a dove

in a place like that, every

recreated building a monument

that looks you right in the eye.

I know. I have walked

Hiroshima’s busy streets. I’ve walked

where apocalypse burned

and was defeated, for now.

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For now, I stand

on the platform, swaying with sleep

unrealized. Where I am going,

I will feel eyes all over: me,

blond, gaijin, outside-person, American.

Eyes like black rain remember

when a cool breeze could scald

a face beyond recognition.

The breeze that keeps me upright

while fluorescent lights battle

the darkness is filled with possibilities.

All roads lead from this one.

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This one train could begin taking me

anywhere, measuring out the miles

with its laddered tracks. It will take me south

to a park filled with cherry blossoms

and monuments. A wall and,

perched on it, a weathered bronze dove.

A pigeon filled with love

by the damp bright air, who will land

and kiss the green dove,

beak to beak. The kiss of peace.

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It is peaceful here on the platform,

alone and swaying, fighting

to open my eyes. The train will come soon.

The city will be filled with people,

jostling and contrary. I must remember

something then, when I arrive,

something about this breeze.

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Spilecki, Susan. “Pilgrim.” The Kerf. May 2001.