Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For the past week or so I have been back in the world of The Recruiter, reading everything I can get my hands on about the military and military families, watching war movies and documentaries, and thinking about war and the way it affects us all.

I haven't consciously set myself to do this. It's more like, once I turned my focus to this project, that's where my attention wanted to go. Stories about PTSD in the newspaper (there have been plenty lately, with the Fort Hood shootings.) Voices of veterans on the radio.

I'm ashamed to say this but there was a time when I would have changed the station. I couldn't bear to hear about the things people do to each other in the name of war. I didn't want to think about those men--and increasingly women--and who they were and are when they come back.

The shadow of Vietnam is very long for people of my generation. I hate even thinking about how many homeless people are Vietnam vets, and all the horror and ugliness of that war. And the fact that now we're in another one, no less horrible, no less ugly.

Right now I'm reading David Frankel's book The Good Soldiers. It's devastating. He writes from inside the hearts and minds of these nineteen year old kids who are in an infantry division in Iraq. He writes about IEDs (improvised explosive devices) buried in heaps of trash or sewn into the corpses of dead dogs, or lying around in the running sewers and the constant constant stress of life there. He writes about the town so you can see and smell it as hell. I can only read a few pages at a time.

I can't make a play about Iraq and I don't aim to. What I'm trying to do is make a play about the U.S. and the mother, father, girlfriend on the other end, us, driving around in our cars, shopping at the malls, eating our burgers and holding the other end of the string. Our "American way of life" and the contrast between this life and what goes on in the name of protecting it.

I feel nervous, insecure, and lost as I venture into the second act. I feel like I don't know what I'm doing, like I have no right. My family is not a military family; in so many ways I have been protected from these realities. And yet. I'm an American. I've paid for and benefited from all these wars that have been fought in my name. I drive my car with the relatively cheap gas that's there because of the continuing wars in the Middle East. I buy cheap goods because my country's strong military gives us more leverage in negotiating trade with third world countries. I pay taxes and some of those dollars go to fund the atrocities abroad. I am not innocent.

As a woman especially I'm interested in the warrior archetype;. Okay, when we are watching ROME I have a crush on Pollo, the ultimate warrior. (Actually I have crushes on both him and Vorenus. Christopher doesn't mind. He's very understanding.) They embody some of the problems of returning veterans, problems that are as old as civilization: what do you do with men? There's farming and hunting and manufacturing and thinking, but there are also always men--people, but mostly men--whose ruling archetype is warrior. How do you find a place for those people, and what do you do with them when the wars are over?

It's not "them" either, it's me. What do I do with my own warrior energy? Where's the place for that?

I have been following the stories of women warriors and veterans with interest, especially on the New York Times home page, which has a lot of video. I notice more soldiers in uniform, men and women, standing on line at the car rental place, in the post office, at the supermarket. Especially when i fly across country, there they are, going about their business in their uniforms which set them apart, give them a special status.

Since I've been working on this my uncle remarked in an unrelated email that my great-grandfather was an officer in the Army in--was it Romania? before the turn of the twentieth century. Unusual for a Jew. He also was apparently an alcoholic and perhaps a wife-beater--also unusual, and perhaps not unrelated to his military experience.

I'm interested in how easily evil blooms from simple boredom. And what about the emptiness of our culture is fuels this need for war?

These are the big questions behind the play, but what I'm working on now--slowly and painfully--are the very small questions: what would this character say or do next? What scene should follow this one? Where do I find the patience to keep going when I don't know what I'm doing and every word in the scene I just spent three days writing will probably have to be revised? And how did I get into this project anyway? Whose brilliant idea was this?

The other great book I have been reading lately is by Kim Rosen, Saved by a Poem. everyone go out and buy this book! It is about memorizing great poems as a spiritual practice. She herself has learned hundreds of poems by heart and so her mind is like a cathedral--yes, she used that image, my favorite--she can walk inside domed vaulted ceilings enclosing sacred space and give herself the pleasure of mingling her mind with Neruda, Mary Oliver, D.H. Lawrence. She has these poems all the time. No one can take them from her. She writes about how even patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease can retain fragments of poetry and music that they had learned; it's encoded in their brain cells.

Inspired by this book, I've been trying to learn the Ginsberg poem the first verse of which is on my website "Song." It starts, "The weight of the world is love." I recited it to myself as I climbed in the hills the other day and found that the exercise of hiking made the breath in the poem more urgent and added its own layers of beauty on top of what was already there. Another poem I love is D.H. Lawrence's "Song of a Man Who Has Come Through":

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!A fine wind is blowing in the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it will carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fire, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul;
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.


David Shearer said...


What makes your thesis about war so right on, is the acknowledgment that you too, are a beneficiary of the spoils. You too, are responsible. We all are. But what are we to do about it? I suppose that since all wars are ultimately about money and power, the thing to do is vote with yours. Don't buy foreign oil. Reject merchandise which is made by exploited foreign workers, or produced from irresponsibly mined raw materials. Avoid supporting corporations and governments that offend your values. But know that by doing so your're going to pay a price. You will pay more for everything up front. You will be inconvenienced more than everyone else. And it will be a long time, if ever, before you see a payback in your wallet. But you will have begun to take back the power that is rightfully yours/ours. You will have begun to use the one voice you have that Greed quickly responds to, money.

You open the door on the topic of men and violence. I'd love to explore the subject with you. But it isn't limited to just men. Although men are undeniably the worst aggressors, women are also capable of atrocities, and this has become increasingly evident as they continue to claim an equal seat at the table of society.

What an excellent meditation, "The weight of the world is love." As always, thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

HI Alison,
Its David Finkel, not Frankel.. :)

Alison said...

You are so right--David Frankel is a friend of mine, must have slipped. Thanks for the correction.

I agree that women are also capable of violence. I've seen it, experienced it, read about it, and been it. The female lion is the huntress, and I participated in a self-defense program where women learned to kick ass--and we can and we do.

Men are (generally) bigger than women and (generally) have an advantage in upper-body strength. I am a pretty healthy-sized woman myself, so I know it is not always the case. And, I think, testosterone, is a drug that enhances a person's natural tendencies toward aggression.

Those biological facts aside, and also setting aside the different ways boys and girls are (still) socialized, both genders are capable of greed, lust, and aggression. And altruism, caring and tenderness.