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.

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