As I wrote in my previous post, I’m writing along with my students this semester. Here’s my second piece of “Creative Nonfiction.” As always, your comments are very welcome.
I am curled in the tiniest of spaces. My knees meet the support of one wall; my vertebrae curve against the other. My toes are folded in a corner and my neck is bowed beneath the top, chin tucked in. No one else can fit in here with me. Nobody at all. I wiggle into a more comfortable fetal compression, drawing the warmth of my small room around me, listening to the friendly quiet. No news can invade.
That is the point of my retreat, after all: To keep out the news. Nothing can penetrate my box, not airwaves, radio waves, or radio bands; not analogue signals or digital transmissions; no wires or fibers or cables or cords; no wireless misery streams into my brain. The agony feed isn’t fed into me.
I know what’s outside my hideaway. That’s why I crawled in and shut the lid. One headline eating another, each bigger than the last. A school shooting. Police displacing homeless migrants. The latest fatal epidemic. Refugees drowning in a far-away sea. Boxes within boxes; wheels within wheels.
Times within times, too: the past is embedded in headlines, as they play variations on the themes of our species. World-wide wars. Famine and child labor. The slave trade and the Middle Passage. Go back, go back, to when religious wars tore Europe, to a time when hangings and drawings-and-quarterings were the norm. Enough. Enough, I say, before I even make it back through the Middle Ages to the millennia before, to ancient empires of crucifixion and gladiatorial games, of human sacrifice and infanticide.
But it’s just news, part of my brain says, inside my safe case. Numbers. Statistics. Strangers.
I remember my favorite writers, in the middle of the 20th century, asking: How is sympathy supposed to work? When my best friend is hurting, I empathize. But humans used to know only their families, then just their clans or tribes. Then larger people groups, then countries. And as communication increases, we knew more and more people at once, and know their pain. Today, they said, the newspaper and the radio broadcast more tragedies than we can comprehend, all day, every day. Are we supposed to feel everyone’s pain in exactly the same way? Is that even possible? Am I responsible to feel the sorrow of every soul? Am I supposed to go mad?
What would they think today, these 20th-century friends, if they were on Twitter? Look how the horrors pour in, at the speed of thought. My phone chimes, and I wince: it’s the BBC, and I’m Pavlov’s dog.
It’s nothing to do with me! I shout. I’m safe in my box, shut away from the noise. I’m a spot on a map, a snail in a shell.
But I am inside a place, a race, a history, and it always has to do with me. The little newspaper facts slowly unfold, the origami of agony, and I see. The shooting was at a school just like mine; it could easily have been mine. My best friend is a medical director, fighting the latest fatal epidemic with sensible policies and community health education. The police are displacing people in a city across the ocean, and I have been to that city, and my sister is marrying into that blood.
And those refugees drowning in a far-away sea? That sister of mine, dancing to the tune of new love, swirling in the colors of travel, planning, visas, dresses, flowers, food: she lives in a place into which refugees stream, day after day. She has a dear friend, a native of that suffering land. The friend just got engaged, too—and as she rejoiced, she heard the news: her family, fleeing from terror in the country next door, refugees at the mercy of governments with quotas and concerns, her family had drowned. Lost in the waters between two lands. Fleeing from one home and seeking another, they were taken by the cold sea without hospitable shores.
Migrants drowned off the coast.
The headline pings into my box. My sister is in my thoughts, and my thoughts are in my tiny box. I may be a dot, inside a box in a town, in a county, in a state, in a country, on a continent, on the globe—but I am the planet; I contain multitudes. I hear the ping, and all people, all headlines, are all enfolded, nested in my Matryoshkan mind.