Saturday, February 17, 2007

Having New Conversation on subjects without words

When the local news interviewed my Iraq-war veteran boyfriend about the subject matter of the new book that I co-edited: Bombshells: War Stories and Poems by Women on the Homefront, I was taken aback by his response about what he thought of the homefront experience. He said, “For all I knew, while I was out killing people, she was probably doing dishes.” Being a writer, a college graduate, a woman with an MFA, an accomplished educator, at first it raised my hackles to be defined by such terms, then I realized that it also confirmed my speculations. The warrior defines the homefront in safe terms of tending the hearth… as if the whole deployment is frozen in a domestic tableau.

Granted, tending the hearth is an important enterprise. However, the homefront experience is the crucible in which a family is tested. While war wages with blasts and bombs, an entirely different conflict of rising action occurs for families.

Writing and recording women’s stories is in no way a competition with warrior tales. In a way, each is an aspect of the same face, but unlike the face, no symmetrical reference defines the other side.

Actually, women’s tales are the unsung tales that have either vanished from the literary canon, or have yet to be told. In The Odyssey, after Odysseus is at war for ten years and takes another ten to get back home, it is his wife, Penelope who stays up and listens to him, finally bringing him peace. How did she become so wise? What healing power did she hold to keep society together?

This collection of women’s stories addresses an array of homefront experiences. It begins with stories pertaining to enlisting and the adjustments the families make in order to let go of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and sometimes husbands or wives to military service. In literary terms, it is the bildungsroman of the experience. However, it is not just the growing up of the enlisted person, it is also the letting go transition that I find has no name.
Why in an advanced society, do we not have a name for such a traumatic and intense part of human drama? How trifling to reduce the experience to a metaphor of birds. The transition for parents is far beyond the vignette of the empty nest. Letting go of a son or daughter to war has a different meaning. In these cases, where a child grows up and enlists, parents have to face once and for all that they cannot "save" their children -- this might be especially hard for mothers, whose cultural training is to nurture and protect from harm in a way that fathers don't experience regarding their sons, because fathers are enculturated to push their sons into the worlds of responsibility.

For wives and husbands who have sent off their mates, the homefront is every part of the human adult drama compounded and clouded with the new weight of wondering if the soldier-he or the soldier-she will make it home. There is a grid that society imposes on this, for which again, we don’t have a name. The home-ster is expected to raise kids, birth or maintain the health of the kids alone, tend to all duties, relocate to a base or in-laws house, postpone or restart lives, and adjust to an all new environment that either has a support system or not. Then there are the complications of pay and making ends meet while also maintaining a sense of identity, and a sense of strength for the one at war.

In keeping a sense of identity, the home-ster will embrace a framework for the experience. For some, religion is the framework that defines and compels them onward. For others, an intense “pro-patriotic” framework provides needed ideologies to adhere. There are also the disillusioned, whose frameworks have failed; they must go it alone to find and define their new form of identity. Again, I don’t have a name for it, but when all frameworks fail, these women still must go on. I suspect each of them contains the wisdom of Penelope.

While war wages, society imposes a framework of expectation to contain the homefront experience. In the current world, a yellow ribbon defines hope and is the symbol for supporting troops, but society hasn’t really investigated what that support really entails. The Bombshells’ stories pertain to enlisting, to enduring, to war lingering long after the battle and all of the searching for personal identity and hope when soldiers come home whole, return wounded, or do not come home at all.

We are a society that must move away from the illusion of the tableau and invite the conversations on each of these subjects. This quote from C.S. Lewis has spoken to me for years. It is the same quote that my beloved and I often referred to in order to get through his deployment.

“We are born helpless. As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.”

Beyond the yellow ribbons, war touches us all directly or indirectly and I believe we must invite these new conversations on subjects without words.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


It seems sad, but it perks up! JL Here's doc and Jesse

Monday, February 12, 2007

Where it started for me. Where did it start for you?

From June blog 2005
Long Phone Call
Last night I think we spoke for almost an hour if you include all the silences. There is still tension between the men, and although morale was recently down, it sounded better over there after the group found some bombs. Two days of bomb hunting, it sure is best to find them before they find you. It was so great to hear his voice, even through the Hadji technology, which is crappy. The phones are cheap. The sound is hollow; the volume is unpredictable, and it cuts out like a strobe light.

Waiting for his call was so strange for me, mainly because it is impossible for me to sit still. I have run my life as a one-act show inviting chance equations and spontaneity to rule the scenes. I can hold down a regular job, but after that, it's like rolling the dice for cats. But there I was, waiting. I had missed two calls a couple of weeks ago, and it really made me feel stupid. How could I not be there for him! What could possibly be happening in The World that is so damn important? I'll tell you, raising kids is unpredictable and a valid reason, but I still felt awful for missing the calls.

I was so excited waiting for this phone call that I couldn't keep still. I had to fidget, talk, get a beer, fidget, check the phone to see if it was working, pick at my cuticles, snap off my longer nails. On the windowsill in the living room I found the pink Alice in Wonderland Tea Cup I made some years ago of coiled clay. Inside it was filled with sand dollars. I took one out, a perfect one, and instantly it transported me to the beach where he and I walked and picked up shells. I started to weep, and wanted to be back there again. That was the morning he had to show me something important, something that really meant a lot to him. He sat me down and told me the story of almost losing his foot, how it had 40 fractures, that it was missing part, that it wasn't nice to look at, and that it didn't work like a normal foot. He told me about the skin grafts and the horrible pain. I thought of Lord Byron, whose feet were badly deformed and painful, but he wrote some of the best poetry ever written. I thought of Shakespeare, "what's in a word... it is not a hand or foot or any other part belonging to a man." I thought of this beautiful man in front of me wondering if I would judge him or think less of him because of his suffering. It's just a foot, the foot of a survivor, the foot of a man, who was told he might not walk again, yet he found a way to handle the pain and return to his unit in a combat zone. He showed me how the deep half circle of the graft can be made into a happy face by simply painting on eyes. I told him Chicks like scars and he's got a nice pimp swagger.

After making peace with his foot, we walked down to the beach and picked up shells: the shells of sand dollars, the shells of clams, and the shells that housed life for some creatures of the sea. It was a stretch of expansive blue with puffy clouds and the smooth waves of a flat, shallow beach. We walked a long time holding hands and getting comfortable with closeness and vulnerability. As we walked he told me about his friend who was blown up in the turret by an IED. He told me about how it is to lose so many friends, to have so many roommates and to learn to let go. "Jesse, tell your family that you love them as often as you can, because you never know when you might not see them again." As we walked he told me about the tracers around the Blackhawk as he left Baghdad. He and his friend (both blessed with names from the beginning of the alphabet) were first to be sent out, and they were sent in separate Blackhawks. They were parallel in the sky with tracers all around, but his friend's ride got hit. The Blackhawk had to turn around. He didn't know how his friend was, if just the Blackhawk was lightly damaged or if it went down, he wouldn't know until he returned. As we lifted shells looking for the perfect ones, a ladybug struggled in the water. I lifted her little red bubble-body and placed her on my shirt to dry. He got a few more shells. As he bent down he found another ladybug, then another, then another. "What are you doing out here ladies... Is there a ladybug convention at the beach? Come here and dry out. You'll be alright” He made a dry perch with a pile of sand and a sand dollar. He went back and forth to the surf and found more. He found every ladybug in that stretch and moved them all to safety, talking to each one, assuring each one that they would make it."You're gonna make it!" I fell in love with him and stood there dumbfounded by emotion. If it could be traced to a moment, there it was. This is a man that hunts insurgents, a man that has to kill in order to live. This is a man that has learned the humility of love for all things great and small through the horror of war. He chose to go back out there even when he was medically excused. There is no greater love than that of a man who would lay down his life for a friend.

When the phone finally rang I could hardly find any words to say. I miss you is enough, but it is hardly pleasant conversation.
posted by Jes at 8:44 AM
Saturday, June 18, 2005

Where did it start for YOU