Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dancing Memorials

Yesterday my blog post was about getting a dose of perspective. It came before events that offered yet another sort of perspective...and pushed me to work on this post, which has sat in my drafts for over a month now.

There's a story I'm not certain I will ever be able to write. The title is "Dancing Memorials". For a time I thought of it as science fiction, because everything I write is science fiction or fantasy, but then I stopped thinking of it as a story that needs genre and quickly it came to deny any classification at all. I'm not sure it's even a story, so much as a prose poem or, what is strangest and probably truest, a reflection of the ideas within its own text.

He first saw her dancing around a perpetual flame, the oil lamp that burned marking the mass grave of a nation.
(It hadn't begun as performance art. It was more like a breakdown, madness. Or divine inspiration.)
She had danced for the fist time at a memorial where stones marched in endless rows, each marking the death of one or ten or a hundred. The stillness had threatened to seep into her bones, and so, in protest, she danced. She could not bring them back to life, but she danced for them. She could not take the weapons from the killers' hands and shatter them--her slender, small body lacked the strength, for one thing, for another, it was not bulletproof, and lastly she was too distant in time and space for any physical impact--but she poured her energy, her anger and her pain into beautiful patterns shaped with her living body. 
She danced in gas chambers, in battery factories with blood still staining the brick walls, in a public square until the police asked her to stop, in fields of high grass where her steps trod on half-buried bones. The dance was not of victory or defeat; it was beyond both.
She danced so that, though people went and bled and died, still there would be dancing left in the places their eyes had closed on. It was disrespectful, some said. Why? she asked. Because joy was out of place. Is my dancing really joy, she asked, and then, is there a better response than joy in the face of evil and death?
He followed her. Watched every interview--distant when she spoke of family or friends, or the job she'd tried to hold until sponsor donations enabled her to quit. Sometimes musicians followed her, and she did not tell them to go away but she didn't dance while they played, either. She came to places when invited, but usually her destinations were her own choice. Some she visited more than once.
He read about genocides. About the forensic archaeologists who opened the mass graves and sorted through the bones, learning their stories: of heroes, of victims, of lovers that died together. 
Once he'd thought of becoming a journalist. He spoke to one--interviewed him--and was told, you have to believe in a higher power to do this job and survive. The forensic anthropologists must believe in one, too.
He didn't. At first he wondered why they bothered. The victims were dead, what did it matter?
Yet it did. Their killers could not keep them hidden in the ground, forgotten. Their families could bring them home. It did not defeat the killers, though it undid as much of their work as could be undone; it was not victory, it was something beyond all that. More than a matter of moving around dead bones. It transformed them, made them human again. Like the touch of a higher power.
Her dancing brought not closure so much as transcendence--not ignoring tragedy, but answering the unanswerable by side-stepping it, almost with a non sequitor. But not completely, since her response stemmed directly from what she confronted. If it was any less terrible she would not have danced so beautifully.
In a cave, where the echos of gunshots and ricocheting bullets had splintered the stone and the shadows still held secrets, he joined her in dancing for the first time. As was inevitable, he realized now: his every step had led to it. 

The dancer in the story responds to genocide because it was in response to learning about genocide that I began it. I started the night of an educational forum on the topic of peace and reconciliation in the wake of the Bosnian genocide. The cave was the location of a massacre and, years later, a concert. The battery factories do exist, and the blood is still there. I don't think anyone has danced in them, but it's possible.
The forensic anthropologists exist as well. The ones I had in mind were working in Latin America, but while in Ghana I read an article about mass graves being uncovered in Cote d'Ivoire, records of post-election violence. The journalist and his advice are also real.

I wrote the above outline, in a somewhat less organized fashion, on the night of the forum and then let it lie aside for over six months. What brought it back to me was another meeting of the same group that had brought me to the forum (the Plowshare Center of Waukesha, dedicated to advocacy for peace and justice). It opened with a reflection on "Music and Peace," an excerpt from John Paul Lederach's book, The Moral Imagination. We read about a cellist who played in the marketplace of Sarajevo for 21 days after a bombing there killed 21 people. He explained that he just did it because it was "what needed to be done."

Things had come full circle, then, from the story of a concert in the Bosnian cave which had led me to write about Dancing Memorials in the first place. I'd wondered how those musicians had thought about what they were doing. Here was one who gave his reason--transcendentally close to no reason at all.

It all comes to the same thing--the musicians, my fictional dancer (and perhaps even the journalistic pursuit of the character who follows her), and perhaps in the humblest way my own writing of it. A creative impulse comes up in the face of massive tragedy.

It may be an effort to heal, psychologically and psychically. The experiences that triggered my reflections here were both mediated through a woman who examines the use of art therapy for healing and peacemaking, especially among children. But not only among children. Warrior Cry is a volunteer organization that helps wounded soldiers with their recovery by teaching them to play musical instruments (I first heard about the nonprofit through my inclusion in the charity anthology Battlespace, proceeds for which are donated to Warrior Cry. My story in the anthology, Ayema's Fleet, is about recovery from trauma, if not through the creative arts exactly, through something like imagination and something very much like love).

But I think there's also an element of what comes out in Dancing Memorials: a protest. Futile, ultimately, but ultimately all responses to tragedy on this scale are futile.

There's also creative work serving as a memorial. Yet I'm not satisfied with my own explanation here: what exactly goes into memorializing something? Grief, and often horror or awe (it comes with the scale, I think). An attempt to ensure something or someone important is not forgotten. Sometimes I fear if there is no danger of the memorialized subject being forgotten, a memorial work appears to be piggybacking off their larger fame, becoming exploitative. That may be why, even when writing a prose poem for my own personal contemplation, I named no names: none of them are my tragedy to memorialize or my story to write. Perhaps if I dedicated more time into research and thoughtfully depicting them it would be acceptable, but as it stands, I don't quite dare to make the story anything but a fantasy.

There's one last use of creative work in the face of tragedy: escape. Or escapism, which as China Mieville once powerfully pointed out is not at all the same thing. That's hardly the fault of creative art. At least it provides us with breathing room, with a space of peace and quiet to wipe tears and stitch up wounds. Discussing the toll a visit to the Holocaust museum in DC had taken on a friend of mine, I suggested I should make it a hobby to stand outside the museum with a "Free hugs" sign. Another friend volunteered that whenever she visited a particular Holocaust museum (I believe it's the Breman one in Atlanta, given the location) she would end the afternoon by stopping by a museum of puppetry arts. I don't think it's disrespectful to the victims to take one's mind off their suffering by looking at cute and amusing puppets. It may be a requirement to keep stable and mentally healthy in an unstable, unhealthy world.

Last night, as students in my dorm floor sat in the lounge watching the news out of Boston, I brought my Plushie Eighth Doctor, handmade by one of my dearest friends, along with me. The news was not the sort of thing to be watched without hugs on hand, and I was sure to share him around with others who seemed like they needed it. It helps, perhaps, that I associate my plush with a number of things--my friend and one of my favorite fictional characters, one known for saving the day--that give him almost an aura of personality (of course, I've always made my stuffed animals rather lively. Perhaps it comes of being a chronic story teller and character creator. My entire family does it). Having a created person to lean on along with real ones can prove strangely helpful in times when no real person is completely able to offer selfless support, needing to look after themselves (I was the last person left watching the news, until I was finally able to tear myself away).

Art can help us look away from terrible things. It can reveal to us things that aren't terrible; that are even the opposite. It can create the surface appearance of a world where unimaginably horrible things do not happen, even if perhaps nothing on earth can keep unimaginably horrible things from happening in this world.

Because I'm not certain anything can. Domestic terrorist attacks, murder, war, are things that have been happening at every point in history and in all places. As much as I'd like to make them out as the symptoms of a particular culture (and I do think Americans as a whole have an extremely unhealthy fascination with guns and explosions, although the worldwide success of summer blockbusters with heavy firepower suggests it's not unique to us) that can then be 'cured', I look around and find them frighteningly prevalent. The day of the Sandy Hook tragedy the Internet was buzzing with news of a similar attack by a knifeman in China--not occurring at the same time, as it happens, but concurring nonetheless. The fact that there were no fatalities in the Chinese attack had more to do with weaponry than motivation. And there's no controlling the motivations of others.

There's still oneself, though, and one's own stance. Which must include a protest against malice and violence and evil. The protest doesn't need to be in the form of a creative work--perhaps it doesn't need to be outwardly expressed at all. The day of the Sandy Hook shooting, I went Christmas shopping. I took special care to select the best gifts and included a few people on my list I might otherwise have overlooked. Consumerism is not perhaps the most creative response, but gift-giving is psychologically healthy, and being consciously generous allowed me to voice my own rejection. There might be hurt and wrong and evil in the world, but so far as I can help it, it will not come from me.

It can be hard when, amid the grief, there's also anger. When there's a need to lash out at something, to attack and fight back. Perhaps that's the best time for creative responses, and why they're so popular among peacekeepers and peace builders. There might be evil in the world, but it will not begin with me; I will not respond to violence with violence; in the face of violence, I will bring forth a dance instead.

EDIT #1: Waukesha, the place where I went to college, where the Plowshare center is located and operates on its mission of peace, and the city where my sister is student teaching, had a lockdown of its downtown area (including the college, my sister's middle school, and the Plowshare center's row of shops) because of a gunman roaming. He's since been arrested and the lockdown is over. No shots were fired. I spent most of the time communicating with my sister through Facebook. She's okay, and I've called my parents to pass that on.
I think I may write a story tonight.

EDIT #2: Strangely, I just recalled that I have written a short story along these lines, about a creative response to destruction. Its title is "Sibial' in Exile" and it's slated for an upcoming issue of Neo-Opsis Magazine. I wrote it as my cousin was dying of cancer, almost two years ago--late March 2011--and before  I joined the Plowshare Center. I think it was my characters' decision then to confront loss with art (rather than me deciding it would be a story about that), but of course, their choice paralleled my own.