Friday, August 9, 2013

When the Saints Go Marching In


Today is Nagasaki Day and here in the Northeast of the United States it is raining gently. I can hear the drops sursurrate upon the leaves of the trees and I can see the raindrops, white and distant, across the pond.

Nagasaki Day is, of course, the anniversary of the day the atom bomb was dropped on the city of that name. For whatever reason, it gets much less attention than Hiroshima Day. I suppose that is an insult added to injury, to be not just bombed but to have your bombing forgotten about in favor of another.

I've been thinking about these two anniversaries a lot lately, because I decided to do an entry on it for my other blog--one of the characters there (that blog is fiction) is a Japanese-American interested in history, so I figured he would have something interesting to say about it. I, for the most part, had nothing interesting to say about it, so I did a little research. I was trying to find essays about it written by Japanese-American writers, but was surprised to find none in my Google searches. I would have thought that perspective would be an important part of the national processing that has gone on for the past sixty-eight years, but all the writings I could find on the American experience were on the white American experience. I imagine there is not a dramatic difference, overall, since most Japanese-Americans would have been, like everybody else, glad to end the war. But there was such a racial subtext to the situation--German and Italian immigrants were also interned, but generally on admittedly spurious suspicion of individual wrong-doing. Only for people of Japanese descent was there a forcible relocation of American citizens purely because of their ancestry. I've just looked up the matter online,but the real reason I know that there was no such internment of Europeans is that if there had been it would surely have caught my family; my father wasn't born yet, but his parents and older sister were living in New York City and his parents were the children of immigrants. Surely if the American children of Japanese immigrants were relocated away from the west coast, the Italian-American of New York would have been taken by any equivalent program? They weren't. My family has its secrets, I suppose, but internment is not one of them. So anyone of Japanese descent in America at the time, no matter how thoroughly assimilated, would have known that to merely look Japanese was to be identified with the enemy. We all become, to some extent, what we are treated as. What we see in the mirror becomes our faces as we know them. How could Japanese-Americans not have taken their government's genocidal ambitions personally?

And I mean genocide. American policy was to kill as many Japanese civilians as possible, in order to lose as few American soldiers as possible. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the only cities deliberately destroyed; Tokyo was fire-bombed in much the same way Dresden was, and--I just found this out--had the Manhattan Project failed, plan B was to use chemical weapons across Japan. The chemicals had actually gone into production, churned out and readied by a factory in New York. I don't particularly care about whether any of this was justified either morally or strategically--I'm not going to start re-inventing American foreign policy sixty-eight years after the fact. What would be the point? But the pain, the human toll of all of this. It just makes me more than a little sad.

But the reason I know about Hiroshima Day and Nagasaki Day to begin with, the reason I know that these anniversaries are, to some extent, commemorated, is that I remember, as a teenager, being involved in commemorating them one year. And that memory has nothing to do with Japan, or politics, because while I was well aware of both I was kind of distracted at the time by the inside of my own head. I suppose most teenagers are, to one degree or another.

And the inside of my head was not pretty that year. I felt horrible that summer, because I couldn't seem to do anything right. I didn't do anything dramatically wrong, either, though a lot of people around me were angry with me most of the time--and I still can't figure out if they had any reason to be. I made small mistakes. I was easily distracted. I was desperate to redeem myself, from what I did not know, but I assumed at the time it was real and quite justified. I expect that desperation may have been the very thing that ticked the others off so seriously. At the very least my company would have been a bit boring and stressful. But my life became like one of those nightmares--do you get them? I do, and I suppose everybody must--where nothing goes right, like you show up for class and realize it's finals day and you haven't been studying.

And into all this mess came the holiday of Hiroshima Day, a holiday from my self-involved suffering, because I was allowed to join a small dance-performance one of the faculty at my boarding school had created.

He was oddly uninterested in dancing in the normal sense of the word--skilled movement of the body to music. Instead, he was all about choreography, using movement to make a point, to tell a story. One didn't have to be particularly coordinated in order to do it. I had two roles: I got to be part of a river, carrying paper lanterns to the sea, in memorium; and I got to be a spinning planet. As a part of a river I laid upon my back and kind of swam or scooted across the floor with the rest of the river. A child placed a lantern upon my belly and I scooted across the stage with it. As a planet I spun around to an Indigo Girls song, in company with other planets, or maybe we were atoms, while another girl assembled a model of the solar system on the floor using variously sized balls. And then, with the whole thing assembled, she used a croquet mallet to knock the whole line of balls to pieces in one chain reaction.

And the Indigo Girls song, the first of theirs I'd heard, was "Galileo." I think they used it because it includes the phrase "nuclear annihilation," though I'm not sure that the song is really about the bomb...I'm not sure what it's about at all, actually. But the repeating line "how long till my soul gets it right" was perfect for me at the time, and it calmed me.

How long till my soul gets it right?
Can any human being ever reach that highest height?
Call upon the resting soul
of Galileo
King of night vision
King of insight.

I still don't feel like I've gotten it right. I have moments where the feeling that I might not ever get it right threatens to overwhelm me in blind panic. I live on faith, but I'm well aware of its limits--the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had faith, too, I suppose. You never know when your life will turn the corner and get better, but you never know when a sad ending might drop out of a clear blue sky, either. The difference is that now, as a grown-up, I no longer care all that much about whether I ever get it right. I expect I'll always feel like this, at least sometimes, no matter what success or failure I may reach--I've heard that a lot of people do, even the most admirable and successful among us. And in the meantime I will live until I die. The desperation is gone, at least.

But I like that song. And I like the idea of calling upon Galileo, a saint of insight and the willingness to see the truth.

It sounds funny, of course, to speak of him in such terms, as he is, perhaps, the archetypal scientist, and scientists are, by definition, mostly the oil to religion's water. How could there then be a saint of science? But of course science has both moral and spiritual implications, which is why the Catholic Church tried to silence Galileo. The Church has not been categorically anti-science; the Vatican owns a very powerful telescope, so I've heard, and many trail-blazing scientists were also priests.And if priests have occasionally impeded the march of knowledge, the knowledge of scientists has occasionally had morally questionable results--I'm thinking here of Oppenheimer, even Einstein.

I think, as well, of the scientists I know--not whether any of you might be quietly inventing monstrous weapons, but whether any of you might also count as saints. You'll laugh, I know. You'll role your eyes. You'll protest that you are an ordinary person, but of course Galileo was an ordinary person as well. He made wine, he liked candy, and he had three children, two girls and a boy. Curiously, he never married their mother, though he was an active and involved father, a detail that seems to have been a complete non-issue at the time. The girls both grew up to be nuns, a common and well-respected role for women of the day. The older one, Virginia, took the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun. She was devoted to her father and wrote him letters, some of which, from the period of his trial, survive. She admired his intellect and read his books, and the fact that he was forced to recant by the church seems to have bothered her not at all. I've read translations of many of those letters, and her only concern appears to have been for his happiness. She never expressed any worry that her father might have done something wrong, to be so accused, or that the Church, to which she had dedicated her life, might be doing something wrong to so accuse him. I imagine that in a wholly Catholic society she swam in her religion, and in her admiration of her father, the way a fish swims in the sea, and she questioned neither.

I can't quite relate to that.

-best, C.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Oh, say can you see?

Hi! Guess what?

The phoebes fledged--obviously that was a few weeks ago now, it's taken me a while to write you again. I'm proud of myself though, because I totally called the fledging day. The previous evening I’d seen the chicks getting much more active, even standing on the edge of the nest and flapping, and their flight feathers looked long enough to hold them. So, while I was not certain, I parked myself and my computer right there with a good view of the nest…and they flew while I was looking at my computer. Poo.
Not all the birds had flown away, though. One fledgeling remained, perched on a loop of wire about two feet from the nest, looking confused and bedraggled. It cheeped, almost forlornly, from time to time, and fluttered its wings, the way songbirds do when they beg for food, but the sound wasn’t the dry, rasping begging but rather a whistled cheep, a single note, calling, I think, for its parents. They did not come.

After a few minutes it flew to another perch, staying in the shelter of the porch, and flew again. It seemed to be trying to escape the porch, but couldn’t get around the lip of the roof. It kept trying to go up to get out, but up was the wrong direction. Poor bird. It’s only sixteen days old, and doesn’t know very much. Eventually an adult did return, but it flew to the nest and looked in, then flew away. Parent and chick were just feet from each other, but did not interact or even look at each other. The fledgeling did not go to the nest, nor did the adult go anywhere else but the nest. They repeated this several times. The fledgeling continued its mournful cheeping. Its tail was so short as to be stumpy, its body feathers rumpled, and after its short, confused flights I could see its sides heaving. It must not be in good shape yet. If it was really in trouble, what could I do? Probably nothing. But I’d want to do something. 

At last the fledgeling stepped off its perch, dropped down a couple of feet, and flew unerringly out from under the roof and away. I don’t suppose I’ll ever see it again, and wouldn’t know it if I did. It won’t be back. So far as I know, songbirds are not sentimental about their nesting sites, though they may retain a fondness for the general area. One imagines a yearling migrant approaching its second spring, starting to feel a longing for home, a nostalgia that brings them back to the same kind of habitat later. But the nest itself is just somewhere the young one used to be. Chick and parent may stay in touch—at least initially they need to, as the chick as no idea what it’s doing—but they don’t look for each other at the nest anymore.

It’s been a while since I watched birds grow up, and never before have I watched a single bird family so closely. I was very struck by how itchy the chicks in the nest seemed towards the end. They spent a lot of time scratching their wings and the bases of their tails with their bills. Did they have bugs? Or maybe, do growing feathers itch? I bet they do. I bet you know. If anybody does know, you would.

Last time I watched baby birds was, as I said, years ago and far away. We did not have eastern phoebes there. We did have another phoebe species, similar in shape but darker in aspect, I forget the name, but I never found any of its nests. I am not a birder, since I am not fascinated by the act of seeing and identifying birds. What interests me is their lives, their stories. I like watching them grow up and interact--more than I like watching plants grow, actually. I do not automatically look at plants with an eye toward time, though I've learned how to do so from other naturalists. I see a tree and it is, for me, present tense, attractive to my eye for its tree-ness, not its story. With birds, and animals generally, it's the reverse.

I'm this way with human animals, too, actually. When I meet someone I might forget their  name, and I will probably forget their face, but I'll remember their story, what of it they choose to tell me. I remember yours, what you have chosen to tell. I do not learn stories in order to tell them, though I love to tell stories, and I think I do so well. But not all stories should be told. The birds I watched grow up, for example, in the Sonoran Desert--I did not betray the locations of their nests. Yes, my fellow researchers knew, but we did not tell the ravens. We even searched imaginary nests, occasionally, just so our activities could not be used as evidence against the chicks. The ravens got some of them anyway, though. And now those nests, fledged or failed, are long forgotten, lost in the anonymity of getting through the day--except by me. The nests are gone, the birds are scattered or likewise gone, but I remember where they were. I could find the places, if I needed to, if I had reason to. I remember the stories because I think somebody should.

Speaking of stories--and this is also old news, for I'm writing this letter well after the fact--Chris and I finally went to see "The Old Homestead,"a bizarrely popular play that most of Swanzey is named after,one way or another. The play was written by an actor named Denman Thompson in the late 1800's. He also starred in it, and while I'm not sure if he really did anything else of note, he performed the play hundreds and hundreds of times across at least two countries and became very wealthy. Both he and the play are set in Swanzey, and it is still performed a few times every year. My personal opinion is that as a play it is nothing special,but as a community event and an item of local history it is worth seeing.

They performed it outdoors in a kind of natural grassy theater with a large, weather-beaten stage at the bottom. A local band played before the show and during the intermissions, the conductor dancing a bit as she worked, real, live oxen paraded through one of the scenes, and the yellowish spotlight looked like the rays of the setting sun upon the backdrop painted with recognizable white pines. The scene in the backdrop did indeed look just like the real Swanzey around us. Music was important to the play; in addition to the band, there was a men's chorus of extras who performed periodically during lulls in the action, underscoring the sentimental fondness for rural life that was the theme of the entire play. 

But what really blew me away was not actually part of the play at all, but something that happened immediately before it. 

Just before the play started, the band played the National Anthem, so everybody in the audience stood and faced the flag, probably erected there just so people could face it. I stood likewise, but with vague irritation. I've never gotten into flag-worship, nor any other kind of symbolic patriotism. I know some people, even friends of mine, might be put off by that, might ask, aghast, "but don't you love your country?" But the truth is I neither love nor fail to love it. The United States as such does not register emotionally with me, and never has. I do not know why. It's not as simple as my awareness of its many crimes over the years, slavery, institutional sexism, genocide, etc., for I am equally aware of all that has been done right here. I am aware, too, that sometimes harm and right are done at the same time or by the same people. My hero, John Adams, not only made the defining argument in favor of American political independence, he also, years later, signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were frankly unconstitutional. But no--it's not that I'm having a problem of ethics with the American flag; I'm having a problem of scale. I feel little to nothing about our country for the same reason that fish probably feel little to nothing about water. If I am sentimental, it is to whatever nest I have most recently flown out of. I'm like that bird, who persisted, cheeping there, for a while, before flying off.

But all that being said, I like the song. I like the National Anthem. It's a great story, for one. Imagine being Francis Scott Key, standing on the deck of a ship, unable to do while the fate of his country hangs in the balance--not that he hadn't been involved, not that he hadn't done any good, but at that moment he was sidelined, waiting, in the dark, as the terrible battle roared around him. And then--just for a few seconds--the same battle that is threatening the flag momentarily illuminates it. The same bomb that could force the flag down by morning proves that the flag is still there. And then--dawn. Dawn and silence. The battle is over, one way or another. I don't know if this is exactly what happened, but this is the image the song clearly conjured. It's dawn and the battle is over, and its outcome is now clearly visible in the early morning light, still grey, perhaps, pearly, before sun-up itself. But Key can barely stand to look. Fear mixes with hope too strongly. So he asked someone else to look for him. He says does the flag still wave? Oh, say you can see the flag still waving!

And that's the other reason I really like the song. Because while I may not be emotionally patriotic, I understand America the Idea, and that idea matters to me. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. complained that our National Anthem is "nonsense sprinkled with question marks," but I love the fact that our theme song takes the form of a question--or, at least the first verse does, and most people probably aren't even aware that there are other verses. Because while the fact that the flag is waving is no longer in doubt, the question has a second interpretation, one that must be continually asked, asked without ceasing.

I remember song lyrics easily, and so I know that words to the first verse of the National Anthem. So, that green evening in Swanzey, before the play, although there was no one appointed to sing, the words were clearly in my head. Oh, say can you see....

But they were so clearly in my head. It was like the music was shaping the words, like I could hear the words in the music the way ripples can be perceived upon the surface of the sea. Could the instruments themselves be singing?

Only a few seconds more and I worked out the answer; the audience members around me, some of them, anyway, were singing, but singing under their breath, each one quieter than the next, like they didn't want anyone to notice, they didn't want to stand out, yet they were singing anyway, almost like they could not help themselves. And so the sound, the words, swelled with the evening, the song singing the people, as natural as breathing.

The flag waves undeniably, but the question is--what sort of country is it waving over? Does the flag still wave over the land and the free and the home of the brave?

The answer remains yes, despite whatever this country has and continues to do wrong, only to the extent to which people continue to ask the question.

-best, C.