Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Abashed Pelican

Perhaps looking inward is not the same as procrastination. When I started this blog last year, I was paralyzed by the psychic fallout of unrequited love, being laid off from a job I dearly loved, and moving with my teenage kids into my childhood home to live with my elderly mother. I felt cut loose, adrift, with no reference points--bewildered but curious about my inability to take any kind of decisive action. My first blog entry was titled "What I Did Today" and featured photos of me stroking my cat Pablo senseless, and was very low on text, asking only this:

I wonder, if I meticulously document examples of procrastination with photos and text, will it add up to a life of action?  How does a life of conscious procrastination differ from other lives?  When does consciousness lead to change and when is consciousness an end in itself? Is consciousness without action enough?

          Without realizing it, I began to answer that question in my second post, "Mission: Rescue Rajah," which was about being haunted by the war in Sri Lanka and my fleeting personal connection to genocide in a land far, far away, that's been largely disregarded by the global community. I've written about many different things that interest me, but I always return to this: Saving Rajah is my salvation.

          I fear my friend Rajah is one of the tens of thousands who have vanished in Sri Lanka, tortured or, by now, buried in a mass grave, but sometimes I don't believe it. Quite often, I imagine that we simply lost touch and he is living his life, middle-aged now, hidden away in the hills of the tea country, making a meager living and staying out of trouble. But in his last letter to me, more than 20 years ago, he said he was in trouble. If I learn that Rajah is alive and well, or simply alive, I will rejoice; but in Sri Lanka his disappearance is always possible, every day it is possible for Tamil people and their supporters to be taken away in a white van and simply disappear.

          I am still unemployed, but perhaps I'm no longer as paralyzed. I'm still bitter about the job loss, but my center of gravity has shifted to the broader question of how I want to spend the rest of my life. I was ferocious and unsuccessful in my attempts to kill my attraction to someone completely unsuitable and disinterested in me, until in exhaustion I turned my attention to other questions and now that phase of obsessive love is finally in the past. Some of the feelings and questions I've explored have had to do with childhood grudges which reared up anew when I moved in with my mother. Those ferocious, primal grievances are now also largely exhausted. The sensation is almost magical--now you see it, now you don't--so I have to remind myself that it's not just a trick, I've really worked for it and when old grievances flare momentarily they are more manageable, more gently and compassionately observed before they extinguish.

          I've indulged myself for a whole year in reading that nourishes the spirit, finding meaning on my own terms, writing about what has meaning for me, and reaching out to friends and strangers with a sense of urgency and hopefulness, answering a deep need to connect. I've often felt, and do still feel, selfish and guilty about this period of my life, but lately I also feel more empowered and sure-footed.

          My tendency to get pissed off and despair, while honest, has begun to feel counter-productive, like a betrayal of hope. In my reading, I have come across Anais Nin, whom I used to mistake for a narcissist--certainly more diarist than activist. But isn't exposing oneself the beginning of a most sincere and daring declaration of self, an invitation to a more authentic relationship, one that requires tremendous vulnerability and the courage to be deeply known? In her essays, Nin writes at length about the importance of the refusal to despair and how art has the power to transmute even grief into broad, positive change, and how a personal vision can reach into the collective consciousness.

          Then again, there's reality. In "The Audacity of Hope" Barack Obama seems to contradict himself, musing,

I wonder, sometimes, whether men and women in fact are capable of learning from history--whether we progress from one stage to the next in an upward course or whether we just ride the cycles of boom and bust, war and peace, ascent and decline.

          I wonder, too. But does it help to ponder in this way? Either way, hope is always audacious.

          Junot Diaz, the acclaimed author who writes from his particular perspective of the Dominican Republic's diaspora, offers this loving critique of Obama in a 2010 essay in The New Yorker titled "One Year: Storyteller-in-Chief."

All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric...

But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all...

Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing...

A President can have all the vision in the world, be an extraordinary orator and a superb politician, have courage and foresight and a willingness to make painful choices, have a bold progressive plan for his nation—but none of these things will matter a wit if the President cannot couch his vision, his policies, his courage, his will, his plan in the idiom of story. It is hard to feel invested in a terrible story or a confused story or, in the case of the current Administration, no story at all. 

          Eureka and Amen. (And, dear God, please let Obama win.)

          Naturally, the way to engage people is to tell a compelling story, a story in which great obstacles are overcome, in which we care desperately about the outcome, where we root for the victory over tremendous odds of a protagonist with whom we solidly identify. And we need a story that points us in a hopeful direction, fueling a commitment to care passionately about our collective future. A tragic story, a purely political story filled only with statistics and gruesome photos, couched in the objective, distanced jargon of the news media fills us with ennui. If we are to care, we have to be personally invested, and we need hope.

          The personal stories of Sri Lankan exiles must be told directly and in their own unique voices, in a lyrical narrative that is the story not only of tragedy, but of hope and determination. Who can resist the suspenseful story of an ordinary hero--someone like ourselves--a story in which readers are on some level complicit because the story is true and, while hope certainly remains, the story has yet to be finished? Because we read a true story still in the throes of its unfolding, we are in some tiny, fierce way implicated as coauthors. There needs to be a homecoming for the exiles of the world, if not yet literal, then in a profoundly imagined, shared way. Each exile must demand the right of return by imagining vividly what that might entail.

           I want to collect and present these stories, for people to love and care about. Why shouldn't I be the catalyst--not the storyteller, per se, but just a fellow outsider pointing the way irresistibly in?

           I've been thinking lately about--wait for it--keyholes. As a metaphor, keyholes are pretty corny, pretty stupid, pretty obvious, but nevertheless I've been taking pictures and they tell a very simple story of fear and redemption, banishment and welcome.

          Is this procrastination or fruition? I don't know who decides; but it's probably me.

          The painting of the pelican and the egg was given to me recently by my sister for my 50th birthday, and was painted by her son, the artist Duncan Mitchell. I don't know what it means to Duncan, or to you, but I smile every time I look at it because it seems plausible that I am, in fact, the abashed pelican who has laid this impossibly, agonizingly huge and beautiful egg.

          So, if I was pushed now to answer the original question I asked here over a year ago, "Is consciousness without action enough?" I would have to say No. No, but have patience and be persistent. It's like the old chicken-and-egg conundrum--which came first and who cares?--except consciousness is the pelican and action is the new life that hatches out of that big-assed, audacious yellow egg with the orange polka dots.


  1. BRAVO!!!

    You are on your way, now keep going and ACT .... Action is happening already ... keep on going!

    Swing out sister!


  2. A year is a short time. Moving the rubble that one collects takes time & you are thinking creatively. Like a painter who goes into her studio and simply makes marks for a while...then suddenly something happens! What you describe here is the whole damn creative process, hard to get hold of, difficult to harness but ultimately the best feeling in the world. Keep on writing!