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Can I Be Illuminated?

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? 

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21 thoughts on “Can I Be Illuminated?

  1. “some confuse understanding with being persuaded” – simply true and the root of much confusion – which often leads to ludicrous situations and conclusions. Disagreement is not the same as disliking etc. etc. All too often an unthinking predilection for treating objectivity subjectively.

    RR

    • I’m glad you understand what I meant with that line, RR. I wondered about it. Thanks for adding to this conversation. Here’s to us all bringing more real objectivity and openness into our thoughts about our world.

  2. Lady Sparks! Greetings! And I do mean that in the most lovable fashion! You have most certainly illuminated me more about you. I’ve always sensed your great sense of empathy, and your desire for understanding (not agreement)through your work, and now I know it for certain because you articulated it so well here. At the end of the day, this is a universal thing, a commonality that defines us all; hence, it defies us all when we don’t get it.

    One of the things that many don’t “get” about me is that I am gifted in many ways. I’ve always had many interests, and felt the need to nurture several of them, but I no longer feel that I have to justify that dimension of me.

    • Thank you Ms. Empress! I hear what you’re saying about this being a commonality that defines us all, though I sometimes wonder how many people realize that understanding is what they need or want when they are closing their minds and pushing others away.

      I’m glad you don’t feel you have to justify your gifts, or your choices within them, anymore. And I’m glad you share some of them with us on your blog!

  3. “I don’t want to be someone’s captain just because they understand me.” What a clear and fine thought! I think that in this case, one should not be the captain, but merely one to provide a launching off of ideas. You’ve pointed the direction – yours – and it’s up to us to progress down that path, or turn, like perverse ballerinas, towards another one.

    I agree that war should certainly be an experience best read about, or watched. No one should go through such a thing. But I also think that we shouldn’t forget, which is why I relentlessly read history books and biographies by those we went over the top. It’s uncomfortable reading – and oh, the photographs! – but so very necessary. Blood, torn flesh, death…it doesn’t change. But the rationale behind a conflict invariably does. So war will always be with us.

    • Thanks for reading this, Aubrey, and for getting what I was trying to say. I agree with you that we shouldn’t forget all the gut wrenching things from history that we’d rather turn away from. I hope someday we can rise above the thought that war is a necessary evil. I have much respect for those who have survived the experience in so many states of body and mind, and I have the utmost respect for those who work to irradicate the idea of war as a choice. I hope it won’t always be with us; mostly I hope that’s not a naive desire.

  4. What you said about wanting to be understood resonates for me. By reading your writing, I see you in a way I probably wouldn’t if we met face-to-face. I think that’s why I write– because in life, people see the surface and hear what they want to and move along so fast that I, a hidden, slow-moving creature, like a snail– am missed entirely. But in writing, I have time to convey myself more slowly and a reader has to stop and listen and chew for awhile before they draw conclusions. In writing, I come closest to the surface.
    Also, I agree about those movies– I like the Pre-Code ones, too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Code_Hollywood

    • I’m glad this resonated for you, Anna. I think that’s a lot of the reason why I write, too. (Besides the whole idea of being the storyteller! I go into how I discovered that on my page, “Bits and Pieces- Beginning With My very First Time.”) I love the idea of slowing down some, and stopping and listening for a while to each other. I love your writing, I hope you know that.

      I like those pre-code movies, too! It’s amazing, the issues they were able to talk about and depict, especially about women’s awakening to their true opportunities and power! How sad that ridiculous, yet powerful people can set things back so far. And how sad that today there are still those who want to chip away at our freedom to know and be.

  5. I love what you both have said here. That’s why we all write, I suppose. We need a different conveyance than what’s available to us in our day-to-day lives.

  6. So many things to comment on it’s hard to know where to start. My husband cries at movies, and gets furious when a commercial appears showing abused animals. Some people laugh at him, this big tough mountain man crying every time he watches ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ (his favorite). To me, his freedom to react honestly, and his honest reactions, make him someone I respect. Either you get upset, react in some way, to these things, or you condone through lack of reaction. You are so right, that opening yourself to seeing, to caring, to reacting, takes toughness. It’s a willingness to rip off that newly formed scar and open a wound again. And no that’s not sadistic, it’s caring enough to continue to hurt rather than stop feeling at all. As a child I had school drills on how to run for home when the Cuban missiles hit. I, too, made plans on how I would hide and protect and provide for my younger siblings. Those early fears morphed into adult stress dreams. I should have just planned to put us all in the toy box! We surely would have been safe there with the toys that I knew came to life at night. Thanks for making me think again.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Lisa. I feel a kindred spirit in someone else who sees the merits of hiding in the toy box. I still sometimes have variations of those stressful dreams from my own childhood, where I’m running away with other people from some vague danger, and hiding with them in whatever nooks and crannies we can find.

      From what you’ve said, I think your husband would definitely understand what I was getting at here. (I just saw one of the commercials of which you speak, and my jaw tightened.)

  7. When we fail to be moved are we dying inside? Are we surrendering to what is now called “compassion fatigue” ? Some people will give a damn from the comfort of their own position but I’d rather react and be moved than be a brick in a wall of disinterest. What do people not get about me? Probably my continued passion for those things that do move me. Injustice, corruption,abuse of power, poverty,…………..all the way over to fine art, music, creativity. Isn’t it time you were taking it easy, Al ? No, not me.

    • I hadn’t heard the phrase “compassion fatigue” — how sad. If we collectively got tired of being witnesses to cruelty (experienced cruelty fatigue, got angry about it, and started working against it) I wonder if that could make a positive difference in the world?

      I’m glad you’re not taking it easy, Al! I love watching your journey through your blog. Thanks for adding your voice to this one.

  8. Beautiful, Re. A very moving post. I got a little teary. I am so glad you shared this. We have such beautiful thoughts as children and such pure intentions.

    “Why do my feelings offend?” An excellent question. I have been told too often in my life that I feel too much and it makes me feel embattled. For a long time, it made me feel odd and embittered. It took a longer time to view this proclivity as an advantage rather than something to be overcome.

    I speculate that there must be a reason for this, albeit unknown. Maybe, it will be for the one person that I will help by the healing balm of heart-felt words. Perhaps, it is the understanding with which I embrace my loved ones, creating a haven. Maybe, I will write a book expressed as only a “feeler” can express it :). All making a difference! I hope this “soulfulness” is felt, like ripples, expanding exponentially. Beautiful, no? In any event, it is like the color of my eyes, or the cadence of my voice – a God given gift.

    Raising my glass to a kindred spirit…

    Coco

    • And I raise mine to yours! I have felt like the odd person out at many times in my life. Each of us has so many gifts to give; I hope our soulfulness and our way of communicating with feeling does ripple outward as you say. This world of ours can use that kind of touch. Thanks for your kind words and for stopping by and reading this, Coco! 🙂

  9. One of my favorite movies growing up was water ship down, it wasen’t like all the other cartoons –
    These rabbits blead – it was facinating at first and made me think – I liked war movies too – but they
    were a differen’t kind of war movie. I was far more interested in animals at that age then people, and
    it was through them I learned of birds, bees, life and death. My own compassion fatigue sets in by the
    time I get to humans, I see animals hunt their prey and wonder who is righter – a man eating a buger
    or a bear eating a man – I can justify only two answers – that they are both wroung – or lord forbid –
    they are both right.

    • I appreciate your comments, thank you for visiting me here.

      I’m curious about what you call “compassion fatigue” and I wonder if that feeling is why some folks find the depth of my caring to be “too much.” I find it very difficult as a writer, to have all those feelings that we’re supposed be fluent in (so we can incorporate them into our stories), be thought of as something I should mute in my real life. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  10. Pingback: The Monday Rant #3 – “Bridesmaids” | Sparks In Shadow

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