A Narrow View of the Big Picture
Every time I observe the progress of the tidal river by our house in Maine, I see a different scene. At one moment it is blue as a promise, then a brooding deep grey, and later a tired brown as it snakes through the broad mud flats revealed at low tide. These days it gets dark early; the leaf shorn tree limbs losing their definition against a blackening sky.
The air is crisp and bracing. A wind without compassion rushes off the river. Everything draws inward. One tends to huddle, stay close to home, move less, eat more, and hover around the wood stove, soaking up its fiery warmth. The lonesome beauty of this place defies the shivering flesh. Our little dog loves to lie outside curled in a nest of leaves.
Today our home is filled with light. A bold embrace of winter brilliance announcing that everything has its time and place. With Hank Jones playing on the stereo, it’s easy to believe in a supreme being and the rightness of everything.
I’m thinking about that time several weeks ago when I spent the day with Karli and her mom Kathy. Karli, a child of 30, suffers from FAS… Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. She has the grace of one spending her time in a protected world. She seems happy and content with life, which offers her pleasures like coloring; playing with her dollies, and helping her infirm grandmother meet the day’s tasks.
Karli is dedicated to her own aesthetics, which are realized when her pudgy hand selects a crayon or when she’s intently dressing her dollies, or when hard at work with her beloved sticker books. The horizons of her world lie just beyond her outstretched fingers. Yet, whatever task she undertakes, she devotes her full attention.
I was there to film a segment with her and her mom about their lives and how they live with FAS. Karli was a willing participant, eager to spend time doing the tasks she loves to do, and happily following my directing requests.
Before we met, I wondered about how I should relate to her. In my mind I rambled through the different styles of how “normals” deal with disabled people. Perhaps, talking louder so “they” could understand better; or speaking like one would to a puppy, with an exaggerated cheeriness, so they would feel warm and fuzzy in one’s presence; or talking with exaggerated gestures and verrrrry slooooooowly so “they” could follow evvvvvvvery worrrrrrrrd. Or just avoiding eye contact and pretending “they’re” not really there. Relating by not relating, really.
After depleting the list, I realized there was no model for how one should act. And I thought about being embarrassed, or uncomfortable, or awkward because what I really wanted to do was to observe and learn and see what makes her tick. How much does she process? How much is she aware/understanding of what’s going on? What separates me from her, other than I can do math, keep concepts in my head, know how to tell time, and have a sense of the rule of cause and affect?
Although, I wonder how “advanced” it is telling time, since schedules and appointments and deadlines make my life awfully hectic. And I often try to find some alternative to “cause and affect,” being attracted to long shots and magical thinking and the thought that even though gravity has worked every day so far, what if it didn’t work tomorrow. I think that way about a lot of things; it’s hard for me to take stuff for granted. So, I feel a little envy when I see that Karli is a lot happier living without a concept of time. In her world, everything resides in the present. Kind of a Zen approach to daily life. “Be here now” seems to define Karli. She’s a fully realized human being, a master of the intangible moment.
Her mom Kathy is another story altogether. Kathy is, simply put, a babe. A vital, engaged, friendly, smart, and sexy woman. She is the national spokesperson on FAS, so she goes around the country telling people her story and the story of her daughter Karli. She is the kind of person who, when she’s with her cantankerous mom, offers words to appease and then winks to let you in on the joke. Kathy is the daughter of alcoholics.
When she was young, Kathy was the classic bad girl. She says, “I was a hippie girl and liked to party.” I’ve seen pictures of her back then. You could tell she was into rebelling and just drifted through the days, weeks and months. Going to school was just another option for when nothing better came along. Dropped out of high school and drifted. She had her first kid, a son, when she was 16 and Karli when she was 17. Kathy decided to get clean from the drugs and the booze when she was pregnant with Karli, so she just drank wine, since that was supposed to be okay. But it wasn’t.
She continued to drift, had no money, slept in her car, did what she could for her kids, but did more for the drugs. She had another daughter after Karli and then another daughter was born. She was to be her miracle baby would help her change her life. But she died from SIDS. Kathy hit bottom. Her dad took her kids away from her to protect them and that was the wake up call she needed.
Kathy got her act together, got sober and started down a new path. She got her kids back, found a good man, got married. And now she goes around the country trying to keep other kids from making her mistakes.
She’s a very pragmatic person; a take charge, make-it-happen kind of woman. Very warm, very open, very real. And every day she lives with the consequences of her actions. How can she forgive herself, you might ask? These days she seems to be at peace with all that happened. Loves her daughter, and is very real with her. Doesn’t hide anything; a kind, patient mom. Emotionally, she seems very together. Not letting the pain shape her behavior with her daughter.
Yet I know it’s there. In her interview, she talked about what it’s like to “have a daughter that never grows up,” and started to cry. She cried several times, felt her sadness, and then moved on. It was quite remarkable, really. It was almost a therapeutic experience for her. Talking about her life and Karli.
It made me think about our capacity to grow, change and accept our failings. And honor our successes. Our ability to mess up our lives and put ourselves back together again. That part takes a lot of hard work. A lot of hard work. It’s hard to admit to yourself your own shortcomings.
Or after you admit and accept them, to do something specific to deal with them. To try to change that part of yourself and also respect the effort. And not put yourself down for your failings. Kathy is a courageous woman.
And what about all those kid behaviors that haunt our later life. How much did we really understand about cause and effect back then when we were kids? I often wonder, who was that person who made all those decisions that so affect my life today? How dare he. What hubris. What ignorance. And how much of that stuff continues to affect my thoughts and decisions today?
Before Karli, there was the VA (The Veterans Administration). I just completed two projects for them. The first was editing a video about wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and the VA’s obligation to meet their needs.
I learned that new advances in body armor are saving the lives of many service men and women. But the bombings are leaving them without arms and legs. Horrible injuries. So, I’m looking at footage of young guys, 19, 22, and a young woman who’s also a mom, trying to cope with missing arms and legs. The young mom talks about wanting to hold her babies again and starts to cry. But for the most part, their way of expressing themselves is all military style; a matter-of-fact way of talking about everything. “Flat affect,” the Psych boys would put it.
The VA acknowledges they need counseling and help to make the transition back to civilian life, but treats it all like normal rehab. And why not? They fought for their country, they got injured (it’s a war, right?) and at least they didn’t get killed. And what the heck, the VA is a world leader in developing prosthetics. So after the war breaks them apart, the VA will stitch them back together and send them on their way.
Pity and Terror
Everything is so pragmatic. And so, while I’m looking at the footage, I’m feeling pity and terror and outrage and shame at what has happened to these men and women. So many are just kids plucked from families without all the advantages. That’s who serves in the military. Kids from poor families. And people snatched from their daily lives because they’re reservists. How are they going to adjust to what’s happened to them?
How are they going to be able to accept it all? And what about all those feelings floating under the surface?
I’m also thinking about the fact that I never served in the military. Didn’t go to Viet Nam. Stayed safe and free from harm, while all those other guys went. Now, I’m glad I didn’t go. But still, someone else went because I didn’t. I had an opportunity to get out of the madness and took it. But lots didn’t. Or went there all Gung Ho and then realized once they were there how screwed they were. Viet Nam. Iraq. So many lies about the war in Viet Nam. And lies, once again. Lies, destruction, and death.
The way the Bush administration is going about it, it all seems so stupid, unfair and pointless. Why should these young men be terribly damaged at so young an age for some politician’s misguided policy? Bush & Company’s Texas tough guy approach to the world has lost us respect, friends, and the moral authority we once had. Isn’t it odd that the person who benefits the most from the way they’re fighting terrorism is Osama Bin Lauden? We keep playing right into their hands. And the Bush Wackers still don’t understand it.
Of course, the VA video doesn’t address any of that. The VA is just focused on doing the best patch-up job they can and I’m trying to focus on doing the best job I can. It’s difficult to look at their wounds. And yet they fascinate me. The way the skin is pulled to make a patch over missing bone. The betrayal of flesh. The phantom limb syndrome, where they feel the missing limb even thought they know it is gone. “The mind playing tricks on you, I guess” says one crew cut kid with deep, sad eyes.
A Moment Changes Everything
And just when it all seems too much to stomach, I run across a moment in a hallway that changes everything. Two guys missing an arm are comparing prostheses. One guy, Chris, is a counselor for the VA. He’s African-American and his job is to follow soldiers through the VA hospital experience and help them make the transition back to normal life. He says it’s his way of coming to terms with what happened to him (he lost an arm and leg in Afghanistan). He’s the kind of guy you instantly respect. Very sincere.
Chris is talking to a white guy, a former patient who got fitted with his new limb a while ago. He’s telling Chris how great his new arm is. And then he pounds it with his fist to show how they made it so strong that it can take a lot of punishment at work.
“That’s cool,” says Chris. And he shows the guy his own prosthesis and they talk about the differences for a while. And then they both take them off and compare their stumps. Chris’s is skinny next to the white guy’s, but there they are, arm stump to arm stump, talking about them like I would be showing off the features of my Casio digital watch to Sharon’s traditional big hand/little hand watch.
I see that they have been able to move on to make a life for themselves, a “normal life”, different perhaps from my normal life, but normal it is. Both living in a down-to-earth, functional world. Dealing with what one must deal with. And I’m thinking, “hey wait a minute, they are more on top of their world then I am on mine.” And, “who am I to be feeling pity or sorry for them, when all they want to do is just be themselves and deal with whatever comes down the road.” And so I say, “that’s cool.”
Opening my eyes to a broader view of what’s real, and what’s important. And getting a whiff of how to get there.
I’ve always looked at life as fragile, delicate and tenuous. That things can crumble in an instant, with progress blown away in a heart beat. That everything cherished and sought after can vanish in the blink of an eye.
And yet these men are so robust. Their grasp on life is so strong. And it gives me pause. Have I been looking in the wrong direction, interpreting the wrong signs? Reading the wrong tea leaves? Fighting empty battles to maintain the status quo, or the never-ceasing struggle to get ahead or land the next gig, or reshape an opportunity? Always maneuvering to make the next thing happen and upset and impatient when it doesn’t?
So maybe the answer is to stick to one’s strengths and let the rest sort itself out. Trust in my higher power, if I thought I had one…
Fighting the Frozen North
For several weeks, right up ‘til we left for Maine, I’ve been editing a program about the Korean War. Well, it’s really about three soldiers who served in Korea, two as foot soldiers in the Army, one as a Marine. The program features their stories, told in their words, and uses their photographs and stock footage to illustrate and amplify their tales.
The Marine, Charlie, was a farm boy from Minnesota. He liked to fish and reminded me a lot of my grandfather on my mother’s side. The same good humor, the same slow way of telling a story, the same “aw shucks” way of looking at the world.
Listening to Charlie talk was like being a child again. Everything was fresh and bright in the telling. Like the time he when he went to help a wounded fellow Marine and realized a North Korean soldier was standing no more than 20 yards away and aiming his weapon right at his face. So, what went through his mind when he saw that the Korean soldier was about to shoot a Thompson submachine gun at him? Relief. Because a Thompson was so unreliable, Charlie figured he would come out of it okay.
Always looking at the bright side. He said the whole time he was there in Korea, he never thought about getting hurt or dying. So there was Charlie facing down death on that hill, looking at it right in the eye. The Korean soldier fired. Charlie caught a round in the jaw and fell to the ground. His Platoon mates saved him, and carried him out of there.
Another time he tells the story of the day the Navy cooks come to where he was stationed in Korea with loaves of fresh baked bread. He was thrilled. It was still warm. He became like a little kid again showing us with his hands how he’d cut a thick slice of that whiter than white bread, cover it with jam, and eat big mouthfuls of that soft, sticky sandwich. He was so excited to tell that story; it could have been his greatest day of the war.
Charlie’s unit was surrounded by Chinese troops at the Chosin Reservoir. Marine and Infantry were trapped down in the Chosin valley with the Chinese holding the high ground all around them. It was the dead of winter, with stiff bitter winds. And some said it got down to 30 degrees below zero. Men were freezing to death. Yet somehow, the Marines rallied themselves and fought their way out of there. The Chinese kept in hot pursuit and our soldiers fought for their lives all the way to the sea, 30 miles away. But Charlie and most of his company made it.
Telling the story, he talked about how the Marines always took their dead and wounded with them. He had tears in his eyes as he said how proud he was to be a Marine.
Al, another Korean War vet, was wounded six times and has six purple hearts. He had a treasure trove of photos from his time in Korea. He fought in one of the battles for Pork Chop Hill, after the entire platoon next to him was almost wiped out. Then he was told to take back the hill from the Chinese. It was hand-to-hand combat. Somehow he was successful. But there were more battles over Pork Chop. Murderous ones.
Another time, he and two buddies were walking alongside a tank when a concussion shell landed at their feet. It flung Al up off his feet and knocked him out. But when he came to, he was unharmed. The other two men were killed. His entire war experience was like that. Surviving while men all around him were dying.
He revealed that while he was in Korea he felt free from harm within a protective “shell” or bubble, and that no injury would befall him. When he got home he learned that his mother, a very religious woman, had prayed to the Virgin Mary promising her that she would walk to the church on her knees if Mary would wrap her protective mantle around her son and keep him safe. And his mom did walk almost half a mile from her home to the church on her knees.
She got there with her knees all bloody. People had tried to talk her out of it. But she wouldn’t stop. It was her promise to Mary. Telling the story, Al said, “that’s what brought me back. That’s what kept me safe.” His mom and Mary. And then he broke down and cried.
When he talked about the war, Bill was much more philosophical. He told us that when he went off to war as a young man of 21, his father cried. It was the first time he had seen his father cry. And then he talked about how when his father went off to war in Turkey, the land of his birth. And how his father’s father, Bill’s grandfather, probably cried as well. And when Bill’s own son went off to the Gulf War, Bill found himself, like his father and grandfather before him sobbing as he said good bye to his son. Sick with worry.
“And that’s the story of the ages,” he said, “fathers and sons and their fathers and sons, from generation to generation, going off to war.” His son joined the same combat unit he did. Bill was filled with pride when he told us that.
When Al, Charlie, and Bill came back from Korea, no one cared. The war wasn’t popular back home. It was called “the forgotten war” because no one wanted to think about it or deal with it. In fact, it was a huge defeat for the US, since all we were able to do was end the war right where it started, at the 38th parallel. In Korea, we lost as many men in three years as we did in 7 years in Viet Nam. Many froze to death. Our enemy the Chinese lost over a million men.
And now it is back in the news, with North Korea again threatening the South and the rest of the world for that matter. Once again, we confront the ghosts of Korea and Viet Nam and the smoke rising from Iraq. Is Iraq destined to be another American tragedy like Korea and Viet Nam?
Back to the Real World
I’ve been thinking about how I view the world and what to make of these experiences. And I wonder. Is there anything that we can truly control? If I know that I can’t affect the future, why do I still worry about it? If I stop trying to make things happen, will I still get what I need? Will I ever find a way to end the daily anxiety and uncertainty?
Maybe Scarlett O’Hara, another war heroine, had an approach we could learn from. “Well, fiddle dee dee,” she would say, “I’ll worry about it in the morning.”
Now we are in the midst of a big snowstorm. “A blizzard,” the radio cautions. Our house is warm and cozy, with the wood stove going and Sharon’s tasty appetizers before dinner. Suvi is munching on a carrot.
And everything I’ve been writing about seems from another time and very far away. It’s dark out side, no moon or stars, yet there’s enough reflected light so you can see. The road is quiet and empty. The lights from a few houses cast a golden glow. I spent part of the day carrying in wood and getting ready for the storm. And now, everything feels just right, just so. Peaceful.