choices, distance, stories

Bee's picture
Sun, 10/09/2011 - 03:01 -- Bee

We were talking about how much our lives have changed in the last ten years and I asked idly "I can't remember - how long ago was my book stolen?"

Byron answered "September 14, 2001."

"Really? Why are you so sure?"

"Because everyone thought the break-ins were political."

My mind has not retained the details but Byron sketched in the scenario: a series of punk houses robbed, a warning from friends that we might be next. At the time I shrugged off the danger. I owned nothing worth stealing.

On the afternoon of the 14th I left for a little while to pick up my daughter from school, during which time Byron called me twice to reiterate his concerns. When I dismissed them he went home and turned on the radio to fool intruders.

Between the time of Byron's departure and my arrival no more than twenty minutes had passed. But as soon as I stepped on the porch I knew something had happened. I sent my kids back down to the street and raced through the house, fully intending to slaughter whoever had violated my home.

But they were already gone - along with my computer and cameras.

I stood in the yard and started to call around; yes, it was true, several friends had been robbed. Whoever did it knew the routines of the households because, as I had just witnessed, they were able to get in and out of each place while the occupants were away. Even though none of us had normal jobs or predictable habits.

My first instinct was to suspect that a friend was to blame and my brain started to rifle through acquaintances, looking for a junkie gone astray.

I was still in a haze of rage as I listened to my friends (and Byron) say that we had all been targeted because of our political affiliations. This seemed ridiculous - my activism takes the form of creating social networks for parents. Why would a shadowy government agency bother to steal my computer? Aside from the fact that such actions were then illegal, it just didn't make sense.

Though unfortunately it did track that the culprit was known to us all. Whether a mole or a junkie, the person responsible for the thefts was an insider. I just didn't know why they would bother, since our raggedy collection of computers was worthless both on a monetary and intellectual level. Certainly nobody was going to get anything interesting out of my files.

Unless they wanted to read the only copy of the book I had just finished writing. Sitting on my front steps, comforting the kids, I realised with a sickening jolt that years of work existed only on that computer. There was no backup.

Even in that moment it seemed selfish to care, because there were bigger things to think about. Three days after the terrorist attacks, we had not yet started to call the event 9/11, but the scope of the trauma was obvious. For the people who died, the people who survived, the witnesses, the families who lost loved ones, the rescue workers: that day was a cataclysm and horror.

It would have been more than enough to just pay attention and try to help the people who were in real crisis. But 9/11 was more than an individual event, it was a received public tragedy. It was terrifying, for everyone, and it had both predictable and unexpected side-effects.

Instead of coming together to mourn or organise, I watched my community and my country start to unravel.

My small family withdrew inward to protect a child who was convinced our house would be bombed. I deliberately distanced myself from the people I used to sing with, the ones who had also been robbed, because the paranoia of two or three was contagious to the others.

I started to look at these people, a much beloved and intentional community, with suspicion. Because I didn't know if I could trust them, didn't know if one of them was the agent of the crime. Because my dearest friend in the group was dismissive of the collective and individual loss of 9/11, even in the raw first days of confusion and grief. Because several opined that they hoped for absolute annihilation. Because, fundamentally, I no longer wanted to sing.

Over the next few weeks I realised that what was happening in my neighbourhood was happening everywhere. We were a microcosm, a tiny little raft of madness on a sea of insanity, and I suspected it would not get better.

The local kid who did yard work for all of was arrested over the robberies, complicating the response further - because he was a child, only fourteen, and would pay disproportionately for his crimes. While my own children, raised in the same place, would have been protected by my education and connections.

Disparity is disgusting, even when it is in your favour. I didn't want to see that kid suffering because he took something from me, and I didn't want my children to grow up with unfair privilege. But my opinions did not matter, and I did not get my computer back, at least not then.

I interpreted the loss of the manuscript as some kind of cosmic sign, a message from the universe to abandon the project. I didn't know what to think of the larger public tragedy, because it was too enormous to look at straight on.

The urge to war was at least a rational response, even if I disagreed on principle. But the fact that my fellow citizens were so willing to abdicate responsibility and decency and the rule of law eroded my confidence in my country. I was, and remain, a patriot - no matter how innocent or naive that sounds.

But rendition is anti-American: absolutely antithetical to the founding principles of our nation. Torture, whether committed by your own hands or under the direction of your government, is a war crime.

I did what I could, what I always do: I kept writing, kept working, took care of my kids. I also slowly started to crumble.

It was inevitable that I would succumb to a profound depression over the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, specifically the incursions on civil liberties. What was unnecessary was the grief over the lost manuscript, a wealth of despair that was both personal and pointless. Made exponentially worse by the tactless comments from friends that I could just write it again.

Somewhere in this sickening jumble choices were made, actions taken. Friends cobbled together money and sent me to Europe with Gabriel because we were, as they pointed out, merely decorative, and someone needed to go.

I walked the streets of Rome and Florence, visited churches and shrines, stitching my brain back together. Looking at paintings and art pillaged over the centuries, thinking about the history of saints and martyrs, sitting in squares that have hosted public executions for hundreds of years, in a landscape that has seen more woe than my homeland could even imagine: my problems seemed small and insignificant.

Standing on a stone bridge over the River Arno I announced that I would move to Europe. Gabriel solemnly nodded; it was the sort of thing people were saying back then. But I am both reckless and persistent, and Europe offered the consolations of history. I didn't know how I would get there, and doing it would prove the hardest thing in a lifetime of difficulty. But I did it.

The stolen book is gone forever, even if I write the stories again. There is no way to amend, cure, or heal that kind of loss. There is no solution, there is only pain, an injury substantially more disconcerting than anything else I have lived through. Nothing else would have driven me to such extremes, and nothing else is technically beyond the comprehension of my acquaintances.

During the trip to Europe I started a new project, a collection of stories that would become Lessons in Taxidermy. People who know about the stolen manuscript ask if the new book is better than the old book, but that is impossible to answer, because they are not the same.

Cancer did not make me noble, losing the book did not make me a better writer, 9/11 did not make my homeland righteous. Life is just life and we all struggle through. There is no moral to this story, no answer, and also no question.

Ten years ago I lived in Portland, Oregon. Now I live in London, England.

The distance is vast in every possible way.


mamanopajamas's picture

thank you yet again for doing this thing you do -- summing up something deeper & more profound than your own experience in such wonderfully concise language

 "Do not speak--unless it improves on silence." ~ buddhist saying (wow - my email on file was so old - it was from the old hipmama email!)