I heard it in my mind, sing. That one syllable. It was command and plea.
I didn’t sleep well for several nights. The days were full of dreaming, and sleep felt so empty afterward. Over brunch, I told a friend he was Homer, witnessing through art. What you do is bring the intangible into the material world, help us connect with ourselves I said but didn’t feel like I made any sense, sleep-deprived and strung out on coffee. He told me about the man whose apartment had been flooded then looted after Sandy out on Coney Island. The man asked him to photograph his few remaining momentos then told him, You saved my life with that camera. The photographer talked about the shock of the destruction, how it looked like the outskirts of Katmandu or the villages of Bhutan, no electricity, the stores empty, shorn of goods, people who were already pushed to the edge of the city now pushed to the edge of the American mind. Out of sight: so he made photographs.
I walked in the cemetery today, among the dead, their headstones, their tombs. In Memoriam writ again and again, a litany. Both command and plea.
Among the brave and honored dead was something I heard somewhere once. I can’t remember who whispered that refrain. In the cemetery, fresh flags were staked in the muddy, winter-tattered ground. Is that song enough? A young man, barely 18, a patch reading Perez on his Army uniform, sat behind me on the plane. He talked with his seat mates about being deployed to Afghanistan soon and I wanted to cry. When we deplaned, I leaned over, whispered, Come home safe. Oh child.
But what (oh what) about dishonor, the shame the living must bear for the dead who, in life, we did not honor but ignored, abused, turned away from? Here I mean rape, the violence we term domestic as if it were something categorically, rather than simply relationally, different than other forms of violence. War violence is so obvious, it is brutal and overwhelming and we shy away. Violence, called domestic, is too close and intimate, and we shut our eyes, unwilling to see. Women are given as loot, so much prized flesh, all through the Iliad. Rhetorical question: what should I think of Homer’s heroes and brave warriors now? Bravery, what an irony, what a slip of the tongue. What a mean and vicious barb in this already-wounded flesh.
Skin cracks in winter’s dry cold. Physician, heal thyself? The teacher said at our informal meeting How can we expect to heal the wounds of Afghanistan or Iraq if we aren’t willing to help heal our neighbors? We nodded, knowing we couldn’t imagine what sacrifice would be required of us but committing nonetheless. Submit, obey! cry the gods again and again. And we do, never certain which god now commands, whose prophet now pleads.
I sing in the empty house, sing on the sidewalks when I go along them alone. I used to hum in seminary and my sisters would smile and say You must be in a good mood and I would have to disabuse them of the romance and say:
No. I sing to relieve the pain.