Sunday, September 30, 2007

Loss of Innocence

I have been thinking a lot of the war: how we got in to it; how will we get out of it: the enormous cost of lives, sanity, dollars - can we reverse the tide?

Eugenia Collier, in her short story, “Marigolds,” posits that it is impossible to be both innocent and compassionate. Only those who have experienced the vicissitudes and sufferings in their own lives can exercise compassion, have the ability to empathize or feel another’s pain.

I lost my innocence at the age of fifteen when I realized my father was human. If he could be wrong once, and he was so wrong, then all the order of things upon which I had built my life, was shaky. I could no longer depend upon things to work the way I had thought was forever. As parents, we protect our young children from hurt. A scraped knee is kissed and made all better; a wounded ego is held, caressed and loved until perfect peace is restored. But my innocence was lost as my father, the bedrock of my fifteen years, turned to sand. No hug or kiss could recreate the rock; it had crumbled.

Ironically, this calamitous event prepared me for life. It was the beginning of the very important lesson that “we are all human.” I, too, was headed for failure, mistakes, and wounds that would create the distinct lines in my heart. As a sixty three year old, I have compassion for people with shared experiences. I know the emptiness of losing a child, the guilt of a failed marriage, the agony of physical pain, and the helplessness in caring for an aging parent.

 But until September 11, I had no real compassion for victims of terrorism. I paused, ever so briefly, at the news of cars blowing up in Ireland or zealots with bombs strapped to their young bodies, blowing up pizza parlors. Too bad, I would think. How stupid; why can’t they learn to get along.

Now the “they” is “we,” and because of this shared experience, my innocence has been replaced by compassion. I devour the life stories from that infamous September day. The young man racing to catch his flight before the doors closed; best friends booking two different flights because they didn’t want to travel together; a young woman who discovered she was pregnant on September 13 – and her husband will never know; the young students specially selected to attend a National Geographic program; the firemen… As I listen to their stories and watch their loved ones, I whisper, “I love you. I don’t understand why you had to die. I am so sorry. What can I do for you?”

America has lost her innocence. Our perfect world order that had once naively assured all of us that our land was sacred, beyond the reach of the madness of the rest of the world, has crumbled. The bedrock of our belief that we could not be violated has turned to sand. And now it is time to begin to etch our American heart lines.

America has so much heart. New York led the way, and all of America joined in on a national hug drenched in universal tears. Our lives have forever changed and we can never revert to our infancy – our innocence. The car bomb in Ireland killed someone’s father; is it our father? A young girl tasted her last pizza, our daughter or our sister? Kabul is bombed, and a mother has lost her son; or is it our son? A man dies of Anthrax, and a child has lost his grandfather, our grandfather?  This is why the madness, the killing, the war must stop. We are a part of something larger – something that goes far beyond national boarders.

We have lost our innocence and with that loss has come the understanding that the world will never be perfectly all right. We are all human, after all. However, we have enough love to share, and it is this universal love force, etched deeply in each human heart, that will allow us to ease the pain in others. We must face our new lives with compassion that says if you suffer, I will feel your pain and hold you until you’re stronger. Then you will pass that hug on to someone else who walks through your life.

 We must all be givers of those hugs, for surely, we all have need for a hug sometime along the way. It is impossible to be both innocent and compassionate. On September 11, 2001 we lost our innocence. When will we become a compassionate nation?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007




Time to kill
Time to waste
It’s about time
Time and again
Time is money
What’s the time?
Time is of the essence
Time passes when you’re having fun

When I think of the myriad of ways we use the word and the concept of “time,” it reminds me a bit of the number of words the Eskimos have to describe “snow.” The clock radio awakes us, and the ticking away of seconds continues throughout the day. We have all noticed that time passes at different rates of speed depending upon what activity we are doing. Time does indeed, seem to pass more quickly when we’re having a good time. An hour in the dentist office can be an eternity. Have you ever noticed, too, that time almost seems to stop when we are engaged in something that requires our concentration? Even technology seems to have redefined the passage of time. Try looking at your emails and checking the latest news on the Internet in the morning… Oh my gosh! Three hours later…

Since my retirement, I have become conscious of “time” in a way I have never experienced before. When I was working, I never had enough time. As efficient as I tried to be, there were always things left undone at the end of each day. I would race through my list, confidently knocking them off, but invariably I always had to transfer some of my today’s list to tomorrow’s to-dos. I still have a list, but it doesn’t have today, tomorrow, or any particular date at the top of it. It is a list of things I would like to do; not things that I have to do. The pressure is off to have to complete anything by a certain time. Retirement has freed me from being a prisoner of a clock’s hands.

A few weeks ago, I was picking up some things in Safeway. The checkout lady asked how I was, and I replied perfunctorily, “Fine, thank you, how are you.” She shared that her ribs were killing her as she had fallen off a stepping stool while trying to get something down from a shelf over the weekend. I said I was sorry, and commiserated with her while she scanned my items.

Last week I happened to get in to her line at Safeway. Once again she said, “Hello, how are you?”
How are you?” I replied. How are your ribs? Did the soreness go away? She seemed genuinely pleased that I had remembered, and we had a nice chat.
It occurred to me that before retirement, I really didn’t have the time to engage grocery clerks in a conversation. My mind was elsewhere; on all the things I had to do; trying to sort through how I was going to get them all done. My eyes were averted- Just get the items scanned and totaled, swipe the card; bag them up; and I was off. Efficiency of time was of utmost importance.

Now spending time becomes the focus. I have it to spend – how am I going to spend it wisely and well? The choice is mine!
Other ways in which time has changed for me are when I am walking along the streets of San Francisco. Before, invariably, I had a destination: head down, feet moving in the correct direction. Now, often I am ambling…just out because walking is good for me and it’s a nice day. My head is up; my mind is not preoccupied; so I see new things and notice activity, and make eye contact with people and exchange smiles. The world seems much more humane.

Humane – Humanity - I have just finished reading Dave Egger’s newest book, What’s the What? about a young boy, Valentino, forced from his village in the Sudan, experiencing things at seven years old that would seem impossible for most of us to conceive of, living in refugee camps in Nigeria and Kenya for most of his youth, coming to America and fighting for a chance to get educated. Valentino’s story embodies the extremes of hell and heaven that human beings are capable of. Valentino has every right to be cynical, full of hatred, and completely disheartened by the inhumanity he has seen. Instead, he has a smile that lights up a room; he is articulate, positive, and has taken it upon himself to make sure the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan is heard. His story is compelling, but at first I felt removed and disconnected. I live a charmed life in San Francisco. Africa – The Sudan- are so far away. At my age, I do not plan to go to Africa and volunteer. But Egger’s book took hold of me in a different way. As I sit here at a cafĂ© watching people go by, I look at them and ask, “What is your story?” I don’t mean to belittle the horrendous experiences Valentino was forced to endure; certainly all of us in San Francisco are better off. Yet we all have stories of struggle and loss and triumph and disappointment and laughter and hurt and isolation. Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a Village,” but those villagers need TIME if they are going to be able to notice others. Perhaps the conclusion I must make is that compassion and humanity towards others will never be achieved unless we take the time to recognize the common struggle in each of us; unless we take the time to listen to each other's stories; until we take the time...