Friday, February 22, 2008

No Hell Like Home

"Wars don't simply end. And wars don't end simply," writes Cynthia Enloe in a book called, The Curious Feminist. As a scholar on gender, militarization and international politics, Enloe's work is the foundation of my own intellectual pursuits in this messy world of men, mommies, babies, milk, human rights, or the lack thereof. However, in that intersection where this particular portion of my "art" happens to mirror my life, War just isn't such a far cry from Home.

"In war, we take no prisoners," my mother once pointed out to me in the acerbic tone she regularly used when referring to my father. Eventually, at the behest of my pleading and insistence that she would leave the marriage in order to save us all, she did--finally--manage to leave him. During this time, the Cold War ended, Saddam was the new face of terror, and yet there was no greater instability in this world than the one I lived in at home. In fact, it was there, in that small, hopeful starter house in the semi-suburbs of All-American intellectual complacency, that I learned more about darkness, inhumanity, violence, poverty and extreme despair from the within the walls of two people who gave me life with the same amount of narcissism that they used to imprison me in their pain.

Fortunately, Bro was there, too. More than pawns in the game we were born into, we were the peace keepers and diplomats of external affairs, endowed with the responsibility of appearing as "normal" and "happy" children, unhindered by the horrors we faced at home. Naturally gifted as athletes and charmers, we were survivalists, and so we moved between our public and private lives with adept intercultural fluency. Because of our intellectual quotient scores--deemed exceptionally high by the local public school system--we even "passed" as bourgeois in our acceptance and participation in those highly coveted after-school programs for "The Gifted". Clearly, we must have come from two equally exceptional over-achievers. Yet, no one, especially in my circle of friends and administrators, had a clue that I went home every night to bathe my angry, bi-polar, wheelchair-bound mother, while my abusive, alcoholic father alternated between putting food on the table and throwing it across the room at any particular human target who may or may not have "looked at him with disrespect". For that matter, it is safe to say that Bro and I did come from some pretty stellar chart-toppers. In fact, what was truly exceptional was their achievement in guaranteeing that there really was no hell like home.

Bro and I did make it out of that place, which we now abstractly refer to as "then" or "there". For obvious reasons, we clung very tightly to each other in alternating rounds of need and support. As siblings, it has been us against the world. In these alternating rounds of need and care, we have loved each other very coarsely at times, only because we mutually recognize our mettle. After all, we were crafted in the same fire, and so we know how easy it can be to slip up, slide back down from the mountain we have climbed, stumble and burn.

Even now, after all of these years, Bro and I do not even have to confer when it comes to being on the same page with regard to these two people whom we once shared meals and living space with, these people otherwise known as our parents. In our adult years, we have chosen to face them together, or not at all. We have chosen to see them as people, though not necessarily the kind of people we would have over for dinner or trust to care for our own children for any length of time. We see ourselves in them, but we define who we our in many our divergences. We have forgiven, I suppose you could say, but we have not forgotten. In fact, it is the memory of the hell that we came through, which forces us to be overwhelmingly conscious of where we come from, careful to not re-create the chaos of our childhood for the mere sake of fulfilling what was externally bestowed upon us as a sense of "identity". We are vigilant with each other, using every day as an opportunity to practice the good habit of being centered and content people inside and out. More than most people, we are the walking manifestation of the power of conscious choice and personal accountability.

Nowadays, life continues to be unevolving and extremely sad for the two people who respectively claim to be drunk and stoned on that fateful day of their nuptials, way back in that hazy time and place of the mid-1970's. My theory, based on the evidence I have managed to gather since the legal dissolution of their union in the early 1990's, is that they were two very heartbroken people long before they found each other. What brought them together was their mutual and undeniable heartbreak with the world, or with the "hand of cards" they had been dealt, as my father regularly liked to say. There was once a time, in the calm of that post-war moment, just after their divorce, that I consciously hoped that they would each find a sense of strength and integrity in his and her independence of the other. Unfortunately, each of us has our own story, and we will live it as we feel we must.

"War is hell," General Sherman once remarked at the scorching of Atlanta. "War is hell," I similarly muttered through tears the last time I willfully misjudged my father's love for manipulation, emotional abuse and physical harm. Nowadays, my parents--neither of them--are in particularly good health. In their physical decline, as in their younger days of strength and glory, neither are beholden to the idea that "grace" might be a particular virtue. Stoically as ever, Bro and I are conscious of the fact that we are each waiting for the inevitable phone call that will summon us to our birth-given duties to care for those who failed us in our birthright for safety, care and protection.

And so, I guess it's kind of funny how all of this leads me back to Enloe:

Wars don't simply end, and don't end simply...but who are we if don't seek to resolve the wars we have within, let alone the ones we make on each other? Obviously, Bro and I have chosen to work a little harder at this, to be the people who won't turn away with malice, and yet, in facing our earliest oppressors, the temptation is there to become the enemy whom we most deplore, especially in this extremely uncomfortable moment of power exchange. Even now, as adult children, what little power we have in this situation lies not in exacting revenge for our abuse and neglect, but in demonstrating compassion in our commitment to uphold human dignity and peace, most especially in matters that are so very close to our most raw human sensibilities. As I write this, I am reminded of the time I responded to my mother's referral to her children as prisoners of war with the remark that her viewpoint on the world was shaping her reality. Isn't it funny that after all of this time, none of us are winners per se? Perhaps it was because it was never a zero-sum game in the first place.

And they wonder why war zones don't scare me...



Anonymous said...

I want to hug and congratulate you at the same time. Your ability to process your life the way you do is consistently eloquent and phenomenal. It's also really great writing. I don't think you've written about your parents before. Even though it's personal, it's nice to see this side of you, too. I am sure that there are a lot of people who can identify with this. If they can't identify, they can still appreciate your journey. Your voice never fails to be a candle in the darkness. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

baby, baby, baby, baby, baby. go with love. go with peace.

VJ said...

Wow. Powerful stuff & very well said & thought out. And of course in some ways a shared sort of fate for many. (Now a major motion picture!) But not only are wars sometimes never ending, you'll never be able to tell 'who won' or why. Just survive with some dignity intact. That's what the Geneva Conventions were all about. Me? I always put 1000KM between here & there. Left at 18 and never looked back. Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

EA said...

"Even now, as adult children, what little power we have in this situation lies not in exacting revenge for our abuse and neglect, but in demonstrating compassion in our commitment to uphold human dignity and peace, most especially in matters that are so very close to our most raw human sensibilities."


Kim Ayres said...

OK, you've convinced me. I'll add you to my sidebar.