I live in the world rather as a spectator of mankind than as one of the species.
-Joseph Addison, essayist and poet (1672-1719)
I like to watch.
---Chance the Gardener, Being There
I have been a watcher since I was five and my mother went mad in our kitchen. Her terrible wordless singing carried into the bedroom in which I lay in terror. I turned the pages of a coloring book slowly, my eyes tethered to a bunny, a white house, a parrot in a tree. As long as I kept watching, I didn’t have to look up to see what might come through the bedroom door.
I watched as my mother was taken away, as she returned and was taken away again. I watched my hand turning the pages of the Tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights, watched the ground fall away and rise as I swung for hours on the playground swing. I watched October light burn blue through the leaves of the apple tree and knew I was safe as long as I kept watching.
I watched other girls, the pure mystery of how they plotted and giggled, of how they cared about dolls and cooking sets and being pretty. I watched the face of my first boyfriend as though it was a living map to safety. I watched his back as he walked away.
I watched America from a 1957 beater Ford as a stranger and I drove I-40 from Rochester, N.Y. to San Francisco. I watched ahead, watched the road disappearing beneath us. I understood the road was my watching.
I watched each of my four children emerge into life. I watched myself walk away from my oldest son. I watched as I wrote in a notebook I had salvaged from a garbage can: The pen moves. The words make themselves. I am safe. He is safe. I have the road and this.
Friday, March 11, the cell phone rattled on the nightstand. It was seven a.m. I was tired from a night of little sleep and let the call go to voice mail. I turned on my side, then felt the uneasiness that is always the summons to pay attention. When I checked the message, my friend’s voice was worried: Is Matthew okay? Just checking.
I jolted out of bed. My youngest son teaches English in Mito, Japan, a little town not too far from the ocean. It is his second time there. He left the first time after the 1995 earthquake devastated Kobe. I logged onto gmail. I’m okay, Mom. Very very scared. I wrote him back, forwarded the message to his brother, sister and father, checked the news. 8.9 quake, tsunami. Sendai devastated. I went to Mapquest, couldn’t find distance from Sendai to Mito. The reports said that power, roads, internet were all down. Had Matt written right after the quake – before the tsunami that might have swept Mito away?
My mind was on loop delay. I have to write about this. It’s the only way I’ll keep from going crazy. Maybe there’s value in this. In not knowing. In having no way to know. In having lost, in the time it took to listen to my friend’s cell message, my great American illusion of safety. I have to write about it…
I didn’t write. I made coffee, fed the cats and birds, said my mantra – For the furthering of all sentient beings; and the protection of earth, air and water and returned to the internet. There was no word from Matt, only steadily worsening reports from Japan. No word about Mito. Nothing.
I remembered when he’d been in the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 95. The phone had waked me from a dream in which he and I had been in an earthquake. We had pressed ourselves against a glass wall in a tall Osaka skyscraper. I’d thought to myself This is the worst place to be. The tremors had stopped. Matt and I had walked outside. The air had felt pure on my face.
I had grabbed the phone and heard my son’s voice as though he were in a tunnel. “I’m o.k., Mom. I’m alive.” The phone went dead. It was three days before he was able again to make contact. I was not on the internet. I don’t own a television. Newspapers were my only source of information. I lived through those three days as though I were made of glass, a human lens watching, observing, ready to shatter in an instant.
Writing. The road. There was always a door marked EXIT, always an on-ramp away from loss. Lost home, lost love, lost friendships, lost forest meadows and limestone outcroppings and softly green wetlands. There was always a way to write about the unbearable losses, a way to use every instant of watching. There was a world of readers, a vast near-empty space into which I could launch the observations of a life not-quite lived. As long as I wrote, there was a way to be a spectator, a way to be a ghost.
Three hours after I read my son’s e-mail from Mito, I drove to the desert east of town and began to walk. The wind slashed through my coat. Gray vapor lay along the tops of the low mountains. The dirt road was frozen mud, coyote tracks like petroglyphs. I planned to gather – light, sage scent, the burn of icy mist on my face, whatever skittered away from my human presence. I could be so busy gathering that I would not think of my son, would not imagine him not so much dead, as trapped in terror.
Later I would write about what I saw. My words would have value – even if he died, even if the loss of him was dry ice in me for the rest of my years. I looked up at a mist-shrouded tree-line. Words failed me. There was nothing to gather. There was only cold and wind and tracks in frozen mud. I stopped.
At home, I logged on. There was a message from Matt’s friend in Kyoto. My son had called. He was unharmed. He was on his way to Kyoto. I forwarded the message to my daughter. Our family began to respond. I realized I was alive with feelings. For long moments, I felt as though I would shatter. Then I began to study what was happening for tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of families in Japan. I spent the rest of the day and the next day and the next reading news reports, opinions and commentaries. The more I read, the more I began to wonder how much of the media, the blogs, the other writers and I were pimps using life, using death – for profit, for recognition, to gain distance, to sustain the illusion of safety. I thought of the moment in the desert that could not be used.
I kept thinking I should write something. Something about the miracle of a son surviving, something about how little control any of us has, something wise and privileged about a family drawn closer because of a tragedy. Instead, I wrote this dispatch. It is sent from a place where in the long run, there is no profit, no survival, no safety. There is only the knowledge that I am done with watching. I am done with protecting myself from raw life, from the certainty of loss and death. I am done with being a ghost pimping life and death.
This first appeared in the Travel Writing section of Matador Network: http://matadornetwork.com/notebook/notes-from-road/notes-on-pimping-life-and-death/