Posts tagged books
Posts tagged books
I felt lonely. The kind of lonely that comes with a quiet moment when there is no Internet or movie or person to distract from what is really going on in you. I sat in my green bathrobe, sipping black coffee (with Cinnamon) out of a cup with mustaches printed all over, listening to the rain. I live in a basement and can’t see the rain, but I can hear the sharp plunks of sound it makes as it hits the grates above the grime covered holes in the ground we call windows. They are so small that when we are locked out of the house my roommate and I thank the stars we are both small enough to slip through. I am the luckier of the two in this respect as my chest carries not much extra that can get smashed against the edge of the frame as I lay on my back and shimmy my way into the kitchen. Late morning and it is already gray outside and will probably stay that way, but even if it were sunny I would hardly be able to tell. To help ease the separation from the sky and also the winter S.A.D.s I have taken to sitting in front of a light-box for thirty minutes in the morning. While basking in this mood enhancing warmth I usually read, most recently allowing me time to work my way back through The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
The Things They Carried has one of my favorite beginnings to a book I have ever read. Simple and heartbreaking it chronicles what the men in the Alpha Company carried when the “humped” through Vietnam. I remember sitting up all night reading through the stories, enthralled by O’Brien’s ability to get you to trust him, believe every word, and at the same time drive you nuts with his lectures on what he thinks makes a story true, calling into question all that he had written before. I had given my copy away long ago and was on the hunt for an affordable replacement ever since. I have no idea who borrowed it, or if I gave it to my Dad, I just know that since being parted from its company I have missed the story of Vietnam and the men in O’Brien’s memory. I finally found a copy at Mercer Street Books not far from where I work in SoHo. I walked in to browse and suddenly it came to me that I would find this book in the fiction section. And there it was, the only copy of any of his works and it was 7.50. Along with an Anne Lammott book and a commentary on Martyrs I spent about twenty dollars and felt a surge of guilt. I have taken to ignoring this feeling after telling it to fuck-off. And for the most part I am proud of my defiance. When I worry over the affect my addiction is having on my life people usually respond with a there-are-worse-addictions-to-have type comfort which I wrap around my mind like a down comforter in December.
I sat very still in my warm and safe underground home listening to the patter of the water above and thinking of the men and all they carried. All their equipment, sorrow, guns, love and fear. Their racism, cruelty, friendship, letters and food. I can see everything Tim describes. I know exactly how each solider looks. I am there when Curt Lemon gets blown up, with his innards and skin and bones hanging from the trees like Christmas tinsel. The color of the sun as it hits his face the second before his foot comes down “on a booby-trapped 105 round.” I hear Kiowa’s gurgling scream as he takes a bullet and is swallowed by the shit field. I look into Rat Kiley’s wide bloodshot eyes as he tells me about the bugs that are out to get him. I smell and see O’Brien after a bullet jumps up into his butt and he almost dies from shock waiting for help. I sit inside their minds as they think of love and death and what they would be doing if they weren’t at war. I sleep with them on the ground in the rain and dig their dead friends out of the mud. I will never forget the sound of the gun as Kiley puts bullets into the baby water buffalo they find after his best-friend is reduced to nothing more than scraps of flesh thrown down from branches. The silence between the shots seems to go on and on and when he finally continues to put lead into the animal it makes me jump, every time. I realize then that the water buffalo isn’t making any noise, each abuse is taken as if it knew what was coming and accepted it.
My first reading of this work was when I was about 19, six years later I have a whole new understanding of the ideas O’Brien is pushing. I feel like I understand, which is pretty much impossible. I have never been forced into war. Have never shot at anything other than cans and old furniture in the desert with my Dad and Uncle Tom near by drinking canned beer gently making jokes about farts and cars. The closest I have ever been to roughing it is sleeping in a tent when camping with my parents as a kid. I am a caucasian girl from a middle class family who has never known what it is to go hungry or watch your friends die inches away from you, leaving a feeling of pain and sickening relief. Relief that it wasn’t you, this time. Or being taken over by the kind of pain which makes you slowly kill a baby animal. I guess the closest I should come to connecting with O’Brien’s thoughts is on stories and what they do for us and why we tell them. And I do connect with that, I am a writer myself, a spinner of stories. But despite how different my life is from what these young men face in Vietnam I feel my heart entangled with theirs.
I have feared for my life since I became aware of being alive as a concept. I have fought a war in unknown territory, digging trenches in the night throwing up prayers as thoughts as dangerous as bullets light-up above my hiding. Please make it through the night, I would whisper. Tomorrow is a new day. That’s war. A war against myself. The war that keeps me silent when I should speak and causes me to shout out of turn and anger when caution is called for. A pain and fear allowing me to press my gun up against the knees of my own baby water buffalo. Just like O’Brien I have hoped I would be brave, but instead found myself dealing in all kinds of cowardice and cruel behavior. My whole life I have struggled with my mind. It has only been in the last few years I have gotten down in the shit and faced myself. At first the world was out to get me and I ran through the divots of my grey matter hoping to find refuge. Slowly, over years, I came to find that I was chasing my own shadow, or rather that it was chasing me. My own fear held the apposing gun.
So, this loneliness. This anger and hatred and fear. They are there no matter who you are. No matter if you are a house wife, a homeless guy or a CEO. No matter if you are privileged or repressed. My point, I suppose is that we all fight in wars falling asleep under the moon of a foreign land, whispering to ourselves in the dark. But, even as I write this I think that I might be stretching it a bit. Making up a connection because I want so badly to matter. I want my pain to have relevance in this world of wars and hunger and death. But in the end it does not matter. Or maybe it does. My story may never be told. The guys that make up the Alpha Company may disappear off the shelves; out of print. So In my green robe, feeling the unstable quality of time and memory, I let my loneliness happen. I lean back and feel it to the end of every nerve in my body. And as I do I can hear Azar excitedly snapping his fingers as the boys play chess, see Kiowa asleep on the open pages of his Bible and Jimmy Cross crouching in his hole pretending the letters he reads from Martha carry the love he has for her. I smell the dampness of the camp and the sweat of the trek across this land. And as my coffee goes cold I shoot the shit with guys about girls and jobs and our folks and our dead. With the rain as my background and the grey sky as my palette I smile a bit, because for whatever reason I feel connected and understood. Very simply I start to feel less alone.
Ross Old Book & Print Shop, secondhand and antiquarian bookshop in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, UK.
Photo by lkeltner