Between the Headlines

On my second glass of wine. That’s a fact. It’s not 4.30 am, but nearly bedtime. The beginning of a week-long vacation, though with a long list of things to do.

I scroll through Facebook and Twitter and all that is there – because all of it is real. The silly cat videos, the bad jokes, the rage. And the war.

I feel stupid saying, “I always wondered…” but at some point, I began wondering how people in Europe lived day to day through WW2. What they filled their inner monologues with while making breakfast, washing clothes, walking the dog, doing homework… painting or writing.

Even in the thick of it, I assume you don’t survive by filling every breath with fear and grief. I mean, can the human body transform that into an exhalation of joy? Even the tiny joys that spark a giggle, that sets of a chain reaction of giggles that culminates in a sob? And the cycle continues. Thre must be just enough joy to see us through? We need to allow ourselves to take in the good, too.

I don’t know. Victor Frankl wrote about man’s search for meaning. But Primo Levi did – or didn’t – take his own life after surviving the unthinkable: the inconsolable grief, or the absurd existence. Or an overwhelming, existential responsibility: be your own god?

Take your pick.

There are people who die in the time between the moment the powerful men sign the documents until the then-agreed-upon moment soldiers actually stop shooting. Are there moments of joy then? A dirty joke in the trenches? Or a whole afternoon miles and miles away from it all? Because even after the shooting stops, there will be moments of grief.

Here’s a secret. I had recurring nightmares for a few months when my kids were in elementary school. We lived next to the school building, actually. It had been a Nazi-run hospital during the war. During the occupation.

I dreamt over and over again that World War III had begun. But my passport was blue, and my children’s were red. We walked through the moors and we were being sorted. Blue. Red.

It was during those months that I would wake and not know who I was. I would have to piece together my identity bit by bit as I lie there in a hypnogogic state. I would begin with my body in the bed, in the room, in the house. Who else was in the house? Could I move my left hand? What was my husband’s name? Like an alien slipping into character. Bit by bit (of information).

My grandparents were still alive then. Both of them. My grandfather who fought in the war; who saw the bones in his forearm while shielding his eyes when test bombs exploded over Bikini Island; who said “America was the greatest country in the world”. I wasn’t ready to renounce my citizenship. Not because I believed him. But because I loved him. I wasn’t ready to cut off the thread-bare ties I had to… to what? Memory? A constructed identity? I couldn’t entirely let go.

But my children. When people would marvel over how wonderful their English was? Every compliment from a stranger was a weird twist of othering. I was the other in their constructed identities. I was the other in my own children’s eyes. The Norwegian government reminded me now and then that they were not “my children”, they were citizens of Norway.

Mind you, I’m not comparing this to anything. I only dreamt of war. And I am no prophet.

Now when I wake in the morning, I know where I am. And I am acutely aware of how far away my children are. From me. From one another. And how the world is a place in continual upheaval: there, or there, or why not right here now? The unthinkable…

Unthinkable, until you knew it all along?

There are photos of protesters all over the BBC. Of people fleeing their homes. One woman’s bloody and bandaged face seems to be headlining all of the news sites.

But on Facebook, I run across an old photo of two men embracing. One of them is dead now. But in the photo, his friend is embracing him – no, his friend is bracing him – from behind. The friend’s chin is resting on his shoulder. One hand grasping a bicep, the other a shoulder. The friend has a tight-lipped smile. The friend’s eyes are open but cast downward. I search for an adjective. It is something like reverent. He seems to be holding him in the moment. Grounding him. Giving him permission to feel.

And the man who is now dead? Both hands are touching his friend’s arm. Palms open and cupping the forearm. Accepting the support. Eyes closed, head tilted upward.

This, too, is life. A moment that is real. I have no idea what was really going on as this photo was taken. But the gesture to give comfort, and to accept comfort, is clear.

Chadwick Boseman died not long after this photo was taken.

May we all have friends to hold us, and to ground us, and to brace us for the joy as well as the sorrows. Because god knows, we are going to have plenty of both. Maybe at the same time.

Even those of us not in the heart of the destruction.