Some dismiss the horror I feel when I hear about new cruelties or atrocities. I don’t ask, but I wonder if they think I’m unaware of how the world is– that some people inflict harm. Do they think it’s better not to notice, or to notice with a shrug or a smirk? They say, “Why are you upset? These things happen all the time.”
As a little girl, art opened my eyes. I learned a lot from movies, even from some that may not be the most thoughtful artistic works. They sparked my curiosity about people and history, and this learning is responsible for a lot of my toughness. Like the stones that make up the oldest walls, my bones are strong and well placed. Like those walls, I’ll be here as long as time allows. Unlike them, I’ll feel the horror when I see or hear about cruelty. I’m not someone who can’t comprehend violence or refuses to. I can. Each new one I hear about breaks my heart, but it heals. And is broken again. I know I’m not alone.
As a child, I watched movies from the 1940s and 1950s on television, though I preferred ones from the 1930s. As an adult, I can tell you why– that many of them were made to take people’s minds off the Great Depression. They took my mind off things in my tiny life that hurt in ways I couldn’t yet express. The time to forget became important to me as soon as I found that it was a space I could slip into. I wondered why the bright faces looked so little like mine, but I would let that thought pass as I floated away into whatever story they invited me into. Then I fell in love with James Cagney, admiring the toughness he showed, but wanting him to stop hurting people in the gangster movies that showed me another side to the times I thought always ended so nicely. Even as a child, I tried to not be shaken by those terrible things I didn’t quite understand except for the pain they could bring, but art was slowly illuminating these things for me and building that toughness into my bones that some mistake for weakness. You have to be tough to let yourself see, and tougher still to mull it over and let yourself understand how and why these things happen.
My inspiration for writing this, was Liev Schreiber‘s film, “Everything is Illuminated,” adapted from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Watching it illuminated much for me. More about how to say what I’m saying to you here, than about the movie’s themes, which were familiar to me, though no less powerful. This film is a comic, sometimes serious work– poetic and full of nuance and color, and heartbreak. As I took it in, drying tears here and there after the light of a specific line or wordless moment, it reminded me that my ability to feel that way has come into question all too often. I get weary of being thought of as “too much” or too tender a soul. Each of us has his or her own way. Why do my feelings offend?
What was illuminated for me while watching this film– is how much I want to be understood. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to that is how some confuse understanding with being persuaded. Where understanding takes a person (from the point that they do it) is their journey alone. I don’t want to be someone’s captain just because they understand me. I don’t want to dismiss, anymore than I want to be dismissed.
I remembered something while watching this movie. It may explain how I see, to anyone who would care to understand: At age seven, as I watched more and more movies from World War II and The Korean War, I would ask my mother questions about them. After asking why I was watching them again, when there must be cartoons on some channel (I liked those, too, but not all the time), she’d explain any point I hadn’t understood. Eventually, I asked about the draft letters that began with, “Greetings.” Did they really mean a man had to go into the army and to war? She answered yes. I asked if women had to. She answered no. I felt a rush of relief, then extreme guilt because I had a brother. I concocted a plan, not telling my mother, somehow understanding the theory of plausible deniability at that young age. When he became a teenager, I would watch the mail carefully and hide the letter when it came. I’d keep our toy box, with its heavy lid, as clear as I could so my brother would be able to fit into it when they came for him. I thought they’d never think to look for him there.
I thought no person should be forced to deal with something as scary as bombs and guns in real life. Those things should only be for movies or television or books– stories like Rod Serling’s on The Twilight Zone, or tales of Superman, or history, so we can see what not to do. I didn’t think this eloquently, but I thought it. This was in my mind and in my soul. The only difference between this part of my younger self and me now, is more experience, knowledge and vocabulary. This is still who I am.
Did I illuminate anything about myself for you here? Is there anything about you that people don’t seem to understand?