Friday, September 16, 2011

Idea Garage Sale Completed: Disasters, My Main Idea at Last

It looked bad there for awhile yesterday, with a bunch of new fires, but as of this morning it's looking kind of stable. And we had a good hard rain this morning here in San Antonio, so maybe things are looking up.

Sorry about yesterday's silence - the pressure system that brought the rain also brought me the kind of headache that prevents coherent thought. Had there been an ongoing, immediate disaster going on around me, I could have coped, but in the absence of such a focusing agent lying around with a wet rag on my face, rubbing Thai's tummy, reading Moomin books, and a little simming were as much as I could manage.

How do I know I could have coped in an ongoing, immediate disaster?

Well, I've done it.

And if you haven't, you will.

The thing about disasters is - at a certain base level, they're all the same. A major illness is not as bad as an earthquake, as a matter of scale, but the effect on the individual and family is roughly the same. Daily life is disrupted. Ordinary concerns lose their weight, even their reality, except as excuses not to look at the disaster itself right now. One subject swallows up all your attention and you'd rather do anything else than think about it but there's nothing else to think about and things are going to get so much worse if you don't step up to the plate and deal, right here, right now. Adrenaline valves get stuck in the open position. You're exhausted, but you can't afford to sleep and then when you can afford to, you find it physically impossible. You keep coming to these cliffs of experience and stand blinking at them, not comprehending, not knowing where to put your foot next, and then you find it's too late - you're already falling and the thing to do is try to land so that the person right behind you lands on you instead of the hard ground. Because that person is more fragile than you, and right now, that's saying something. But you don't want to land on the person offering to catch you because he's making the offer without any idea of what he's volunteering to do. Or there's nobody down there to catch you at all because nobody understands what's going on and you can't tell them because - you can't.

Because the disaster is your fault. Somehow. And someone out there is telling you it's you're fault and you'd like to strangle them, but you can't spare the time and effort from keeping you and yours alive.

I'm not going to tell you the specifics of how I know all this. It doesn't matter. All you need to know is that the events in my personal life at the cusp of 2004/2005 were such that, when I dreamed of a tsunami on New Years Eve, I thought it was a clear and obvious metaphor for what was happening to Us. The fact of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami hadn't registered in my conscious mind, though presumably I had caught some news of it while I was busy wrestling with events nearer to home.

Writers are often told to find "the universal" of common human experience in order to reach our readers and make them empathize with the figures in our books. What is not made clear is where "the universal" lies and how we tap into that. "The universal" is the individual. We all experience life the same way, processed through our sensory apparatus, mediated by the chemicals in our body. Yes, there is a hideous difference of scale between a miscarriage and a tornado ripping through a school, but the adrenaline pumping uselessly through our gland, urging us to save children we cannot save, to run when no place is safe, to fight what we can't grapple with, doesn't care about scale.

It would be massively insensitive to say to someone looking at the ashes of his entire subdivision: "Yeah, I know how you feel. I've been divorced." But - if you have been through an ugly divorce, you only have to tap into that memory to realize that he doesn't want to hear anything from or about you right now, but he probably could use the physical boost of a strong cup of caffeine with plenty of sugar and a couple of practical suggestions for what to do next. Not advice, absolutely not, but a question: "Should we spray down the barn some more in case there's still some embers alive?" Or an offer: "You can use my cell if you need to call anybody." Or an order, if he's still shell-shocked enough: "You're sleeping on my couch tonight and the kids can have the floor in the rec room."

And if you're writing about how and why the subdivision burned, you still go to that same place. The place where your own disaster still lives, helping you treat the disasters of others with the respect they deserve.

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