A fellow writer wants to know more about something I've written, something centering on a child's body at the center of the storm of war. She asks, "Why bring violence and sexuality so close to the body of a child?" Her eyes blur and magnify when she says it. I can hear the flutter of worry in her voice. We are both mothers. We have both lost children.
I take a long time answering.
Let me start over. We are in a bar. Two menopausal women writers. Our middle-age barnacles up around all the newly formed couples swimming in and out between booths and things like colorful fish. The teeming-with-life bar waters slide right through us. We could be somebody's mother.
I don't know what my writer friend is thinking, but I suspect it's something about protecting children. I suspect she's worried I've gone too far this time. It's a fact that her writing is exceptionally loving and giving. It's a fact that her books make people feel good. And we need that. A lot. I am grateful for her writing and giving. I often wish I could write something similar, just once. Believe me, I've tried. But my story always... breaches.
What I'm holding in my mouth besides the big gulp of wine is a sentence. Not sure whether to swallow it down or clear my throat and answer. I've been here before. The sentence I'm holding in my mouth is this: I wrote straight into violence, sexuality, art, and a child's body on purpose. Because it's a place I have been to.
But what kind of woman says that? What kind of mother?
She smiles, little lines stitching around her mouth.
Like the lines around my eyes.
We are made of our lines.
148 Beslan children massacred in Russia — over 30 terrorists assaulted the ceremony, capturing 1,128 people as hostages — everyone who failed to flee. Most of them were ushered into the school's gym. The gym was then mined.
I weigh how long it would take me to explain myself against my entire life — especially the parts that didn't go quite right — didn't plot out and climax and resolve or transcend. I think about my character arcs. The one in my life, bent and crooked and even blown to bits in places. The one in my book about a girl, how the arc doesn't do what the reader wishes it would. It's not like I accidentally missed something. I wrote a girl whose grace is violent and sexual. And that's her agency. She doesn't transcend anything. Her arc doesn't plot right. But her body still carries a story, like all of our bodies do.
I'm maybe a bad writer or a bad person or a bad mother or all of the above, is one conclusion.
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That word, "war," what do we mean when we say it? I mean I KNOW what we mean. We mean those epic historical markers of national crisis and conflicts of power. We mean streams of soldiers. But sometimes I wonder if war also braids its way into us like DNA. A bloodline. A habit of being. A structure of consciousness.
My mother's father molested his children.
My father's father beat him to a hunched-over animal in the kitchen. His mother cut his tongue. Literally.
My father abused my mother, my sister, me.
What words do we use for the suffering of children in their various war zones?
"Domestic violence." Brutality too close to the body of a child.
We don't tend to say "war" when it's the small backs of children, the tearing open of child-flesh.
And if we do, it's something along the lines of "child refugees" or "innocent victims of conflict," or "the effects of war on women and children." Effects. On that oddly conflated category, "women and children." But not the war itself. That agency, that language is reserved and awarded exclusively to the heroic combatants. The soldier's story.
The terror group Boko Haram shocked the world last year when its fighters kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from a boarding school in the town of Chibok, in Nigeria.
How many violences must a child suffer before they are awarded a purple heart?
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My middle-aged woman writer friend cares about me. She cares what happens to me, she cares about my writing career. While she is talking to me about this uneasy writing I have put into the world, she is speaking compassionately. Even the bar we are in is warm and caring. I could come to this bar any night of my life and the people in it would hold me — if by "hold" we mean keep a person from shattering in their aloneness.
My friend, she's worried things will be hard for me. People might not click "like" or swell with admiration when they read me. People might feel angry or turn away from some of the brutality I rendered. People on Goodreads or Amazon may get snarky. She's right, too; it will probably be hard.
But not as hard as things that are hard are.
We are both mothers, so we've both been ravaged by motherhood as well — a brutality of love I'm still not sure how any woman survives. You heard me right. Brutality. It's a love that could kill you.
The 43 Mexican students who disappeared in southern Mexico in September were abducted by police on order of a local mayor, and are believed to have been turned over to a gang that killed them and burned their bodies before throwing some remains in a river, the nation's attorney general said Friday.
I know this because I traveled to a place called grief and loss. It's a real place that people whose children have died travel to. Some of the grievers don't come back. Some come back with nothing but nothing in their guts, and live that way the rest of their lives, or go to dirt. I went down into the depths when my daughter died, I journeyed far enough to the bottom to see that I could let go in the dark blueblack. I stayed a little too long, I admit. The membrane between psychosis and imagination is thin as infant's skin. But I did not let go. And I did not return empty handed. What I brought back up with me is as world-shattering as the myths and stories we still use for life maps.
What I brought back up with me is the agency to make art. And more: I brought back with me the truth that sometimes beauty can come from dark and brutal places. In fact sometimes art rests exactly between brutal and beautiful, as is the case in the body of a dead child.
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, there is nothing beautiful about the body of a dead child. And you are right.
Except that I've held a dead infant, the one that was mine, and I tell you I learned more about the sublime beauty of things in that moment than I have ever learned in any other moment of my life.
Her perfect cheeks and fingers.
First the Pakistani Taliban bombed or burned over 1,000 schools. Then they shot Malala Yousafzai, the teenage advocate for girls' rights. But on Tuesday, the Taliban took their war on education to a ruthless new low with an assault on a crowded school in Peshawar that killed 145 people — 132 of them uniformed schoolchildren — in the deadliest single attack in the group's history.
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"Why bring violence and sexuality so close to the body of a child?"
It's her question I left hanging in the air between us.
Because everywhere in the world they are on fire?
Because the "news" doesn't help me live with what we've done?
I'm literally afraid to open my mouth.
I'm afraid a war poetics will come out. All those feelings when we see what is happening on the Internet or television and do next to nothing. All our helplessness and all my rage at that helplessness, it is in me, it is every moment of every day, it laces every other thing that is beautiful or funny or kind, it is omnipresent like the face of my daughter is to me.
Wars of our time are brutal battles that take the fight straight into streets and schools, leaving little in their wake. Children are dying in growing numbers and childhood itself is being destroyed. Last week in Gaza, the United Nations noted with alarm that a child was dying every hour. Before Gaza took over the headlines, it was the children of Syria who pricked the world's conscience. In a punishing war now in its fourth year, even the youngest of Syrians are in the snipers' sights. Even infants have been tortured.
Not what we say but what we do.
Not how they are born but how they bear us, how they grow even from heaps of death and trash and concrete rubble.
How they can smile after we've murdered their souls, how they can love after we've beaten and violated and mutilated their bodies — still they can light up an entire epoch with a single "oh," their mouths still able to make the shape of hope.
Even missing half of their teeth, the smile of a child can obliterate a war-torn landscape, as if missiles and fire were puny next to that soft sweet line opening a face back up to the world, to love and chance and dream… their small hands and shoulders — how slight their not-grown-yet shoulders — their very bodies the perfect poems we cannot write.
On the eve of Rwanda's genocide, Radio Mille Collines, in Kigali, incited listeners with a venomous message: "To kill the big rats, you have to kill the little rats." It was a veiled command to murder the youngest generation of Tutsis, the country's minority tribe. In less than four months, an estimated 300,000 children were slashed, hacked, gunned, or burned to death, according to the United Nations. Among the dead were newborns.
We only write after the fact.
We record history recklessly… like piles of tiny shoes.
We've never deserved it, their unconditional love. And yet it comes. Their return and return and then again the open arms of them. Running to greet us. My god.
We made the world the way it is. We put them in it. We keep them in harm's way. We go on as if it is someone else's agency that must change things. Some passing leader or some imagined idiotic god. Some savior we endlessly head-swivel toward so as not to ask it of ourselves.
I want to chew my own hands off.
I want to hurl my life out into space and pray to some secular starjunk that it will come hurtling back to me meteor-like, back to me a better person, one who can stop what seems unstoppable, one who can love differently, some astral-made lovething bigger than a bomb, some sound capable of ringing hatred from all the bones and teeth of others.
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I don't say anything.
In the bar.
With my woman beautiful friend, fellow mother, comrade in writing.
I order us another round. We hold hands, two aging women in a bar, two writers, who only have writing left to give, and what's left of our motherhood. Eggless but able to withstand just how many kinds of love exist… some of them beautiful. Some of them brutal.
Let it not be nothing.