a new conjunction and glimmering stars
by Bei Dao, translated by Bonnie S. McDougall
Debasement is the password of the base,
Nobility the epitaph of the noble.
See how the gilded sky is covered
With the drifting twisted shadows of the dead.
The Ice Age is over now,
Why is there ice everywhere?
The Cape of Good Hope has been discovered,
Why do a thousand sails contest the Dead Sea?
I came into this world
Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow,
To proclaim before the judgment
The voice that has been judged:
Let me tell you, world,
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number thousand and one.
I don’t believe the sky is blue;
I don’t believe in thunder’s echoes;
I don’t believe that dreams are false;
I don’t believe that death has no revenge.
If the sea is destined to breach the dikes
Let all the brackish water pour into my heart;
If the land is destined to rise
Let humanity choose a peak for existence again.
A new conjunction and glimmering stars
Adorn the unobstructed sky now;
They are the pictographs from five thousand years.
They are the watchful eyes of future generations.
* * *
My trip to Florida was a reunion as much as a funeral. I got to see both of my sisters, who both live impossibly far away in Wisconsin and Washington State, at the same time. This never happens. I got to see all eight of my cousins together in one place again for the first time in many years. This never happens anymore either. I saw my mom’s cousins, my aunts, my uncles–all at the same time, in the same place. Seeing all of these familiar faces together in one place was somewhat surreal.
The day after the funeral my sisters and I drove to the Atlantic, and, even though the water was a little cold, I swam. It was warm enough to be tolerable, and I enjoyed it so much. The ocean always makes me feel like a child. We ate big platters of fried seafood together then drove back home that evening. That was Saturday. The next day I flew home, reading, and reading, and reading. I am almost done with the book I bought for the trip, In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, a non-fiction book that describes the situation in Germany leading up to WWII through a kind of personal account of the then U.S. ambassador to Germany and his daughter.
Now that I am back home, I feel as if I had been plucked from my regular life in the landlocked Midwest and set down briefly in Florida, as if by a crane. Sometimes I daydream about swimming in the ocean, because I did this so much growing up in Florida, and took it for granted, but now it seems like something very inaccessible, that is never likely to happen any time soon, and if it did happen, would only happen with difficulty. But last Saturday it happened quite easily. And there were my sisters, sitting on the beach, watching me. Surreal, surreal, surreal.
The photo above is the cemetery where my grandparents are now both buried. On Saturday, I walked away from the gravesite with my two sisters, said goodbye to all of our relatives, and got into the car, feeling totally done for the day. It was a meaningful day for so many reasons, and my eyes were swollen from crying on and off at unpredictable moments during the funeral service. I also had not slept well the night before. I was surprised at how much I cried over my grandfather. I was not sure what to expect from my emotions at his funeral, and I knew that I had a strong affection and connection to him, but now I know that it was even stronger than I thought. But those kind of tears are not the despairing kind. I know that I also smiled a lot on the day of his funeral, as well as the days surrounding it.
At the cemetery, my two older sisters and I had just settled into the car to drive back to Orlando from Eustis, Florida, ready to collapse at my parents’ house and recover. Right then my sister received a text– something about everything being safe at her daughter’s school. Alarmed, she called her husband who was at home with her kids on the West Coast, and asked, “Is everything okay at Hannah’s school?” Then I heard her gasp. After she got off the phone we learned about the shooting that had happened earlier in the day in Connecticut. At that moment, when the news hit me, I felt that it was like a large boulder that might roll over and crush me. I knew that it was too much for me to possibly process. All of it together–the funeral and then this information– was more than one heart and one mind could reasonably deal with in one day.
Now, days later, I am still unable to write sensibly about it, and, anyway, so many others are doing a good job of writing and conversing about these things, while I am trying to stay afloat in the sea of my own obligations. On Monday morning, having barely recovered from traveling, I went to Esme’s school where she gave us a “rainforest tour.” I was blown away with how hard the first grade had obviously worked to transform the school’s hallway into a rainforest, with animals, plants, and vines hanging from the walls and ceiling. Esme wore an animal print visor and spoke very authoritatively on each portion of the tour. She knew the points of the compass and used it to navigate back and forth between the tiers of the rainforest and the various animals. I did not know she knew all of that. Jeff and I signed the guest book and Esme requested specifically that I write my message in cursive. For some reason she is really interested in cursive writing even though she is not learning it yet in school.
Then yesterday, Tuesday, the nurse at Esme’s school called me and told me that she had pink eye and could not return to school until she had a prescription for her eye. This required asking our doctor to do us the favor of squeezing us in for an appointment today. He did, but Esme still had to miss school, so Jeff had to cancel a lunch appointment with a somewhat important person at the university so that he could stay home with the girls, so that I could go to work. A week ago Esme left her winter coat at a birthday part at “Monkey Joe’s” and when we went back to inquire it was not there, so tonight, with snow predicted for tomorrow, I had to run out and get her a new coat, as well as the prescription drops for her eye.
At bedtime we have started a new routine including “family time.” We sit together and each take a turn speaking about what we are thankful for in our day. It seems to do something for each of us individually and as a family that is greater than the sum of its parts. Esme has now added the stipulation that whoever is talking has to hold the twilight turtle (a stuffed toy whose hard shell projects stars onto the ceiling when it is turned on). So now we pass the turtle around.
There is so much involved in taking care of children and preparing them for adulthood, and, as the president said in his speech, so many people are involved in this terribly intricate, labor intensive task–so much delicacy of effort and so much goodness is poured out day after day on our little children. It is just too impossible to believe that one stupid person with a gun can have the power to barge into the sacred place where these tender things go to unfold each day and annihilate so much that has been nurtured and built up–and still has so far to go to be built yet farther– in just one cursed moment.
I chose the poem above for today because I thought that it expresses something of the nihilism and the despair that an event like this shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary evokes. In the moment when you learn that such a thing has happened, there is no comfort, there are no words that could possibly be acceptable. If someone tried to offer words at that moment, the appropriate response might be to punch them.
If you want to stay in that vacuum of nihilism because you find it to be holy, then cover your ears, my friend, because the words are coming. The meaning-making– it always comes. It comes and rearranges the moment, and like it or not, that little bubble of shock and awe and free-fall and silence which would tolerate no explanation is going to be tidied up quickly. I truly loved the president’s eulogy, even while knowing that just by loving it I was letting him distance me from my frist, perhaps more genuine, reaction to the tragedy. And I knew that even while I loved his speech so many listening were going to find a dozen ways to tear it to shreds, and that this too is another form of just scooting away from that white hot center of the tragedy. But as a speech– judged purely on the grounds of rhetorical merit– I thought it was near perfect. And what a sucker I am for rhetorical beauty and comfort. I am not very stubborn in my nihilism at all– I let the comfort break down my resistance so easily. I let it talk me down from the ledge with hardly a fight. But I also do not know how I can possibly live in fear and disbelief. Certainly, I cannot continue the task of raising my children under the burden of such despair.
This poem is like this. It is nihilism trying to resist belief, and failing. The belief, like tiny sparkles in predominantly black quartz, is somehow glinting in little pinpricks from stanza to stanza. In the end, we choose another peak, and, soaked to the bone with bracken water, climb back up to dry off and start again.
And so: if the end of the world (as the rumors based on the Mayan calendar tell it) does not come first, then Christmas is still coming. As I photocopied the bulletin today for the last Sunday of Advent at the Presbyterian Church where I work, I noticed a line in the service which said, “Look for me [Jesus] in the stars and the straw.” How we do this again and again, I do not know, but it seems that, under the watchful eye of future generations, we always more than manage to do so.