…I am a prayer of smoke wandering the broken houses, the littered ground looking for a white flag of reason…
-from "I Am a Prayer," by Joy Harjo,
23rd United States Poet Laureate
I hesitate to use the plural pronoun here, to extrapolate from my own experience; I'll just speak for myself as witness, participant, peripheral observer, narrator, protagonist. But I'm also a journalist and have gathered stories, not evidence, but stories. Therefore, I make no claim to knowledge beyond my own experience and reporting. I offer no solution. But the sense of loss, real and metaphoric, is profound. I had hoped, as have so many, that the world would be at peace in my lifetime.
Is there anyone you know, dear reader, who has not been touched by the conflagrations in Ukraine and the Middle East. Is there anyone you know who does not have an opinion about these wars, about what should and should not be done?
Speaking for myself, then, and only for myself, as a child of war, there's a sense that I've lost –not everything, but far too much. This loss, or confusion, surfaces in dreams which have intensified since I realized I knew someone—Peter Zalmayev—in Kyiv and intensified again after the massacre in Israel on October 7. I have cousins in Israel and an acquaintance, a young artist—Malak Mattar—from Gaza. I follow her on Facebook and connect with her on FB Messenger. Meanwhile, here in the United States, I received a request from a once dear Palestinian friend to remove him from my blog blast. I do not think he wrote it as it seemed to be copied and pasted from a printed document, but it is eloquent nonetheless:
How can you explain that you are no longer fit for superficial daily conversation, and that you are so drained that you need some solitude in order to repair what the war destroyed within you.
A simple reply from me: I understand.
An email to one of my Israeli cousins was answered almost immediately. He is in New York on sabbatical from Tel Aviv University, his son is in the IDF reserves and has been called up, and that was it. Two sentences. No plans to get together as yet, no reply to a follow-up email, no What's App conversation. Solitude heals. Solitude protects.
In the past, therapists have asked me, "What do you feel as you awaken from the dream? Describe the sensation, describe the emotion." And if I were asked to reply this week, I'd say, "Incomparable loss, irrefutable loss, isn't it obvious?"
Lord Byron might have called this dream image of nothingness ahead, white as a sun-spattered cloud—death awaiting. There is no grounding in that image, no ledge on which to sit and watch the sky or sea. The only antidote to such a free fall dream is to weight myself in hiking boots and march full throttle into the mountains away from war, and then to stay connected to those in war zones with messages and interviews and articles, to give them voice in my blog posts and articles.
I'm reminded of the days following 9/11. I was in the city and had to force myself back onto the subway to teach after roaming for weeks on foot. Long past the Civil War, with no warfare in North America, most Americans can't imagine war, or famine or terrible contagious disease, or the kind of poverty that grinds and breaks a family open with fear. We—and I'll use the plural pronoun here—we Americans, are eager to let the good times roll. If the dreams become too portentous, we push them aside; we don't admit to having such dreams.
Even though I've got food, shelter, work, a significant other, and objectively can't complain, or mustn't complain, I sometimes judge a friend who's just been to Telluride on a skiing holiday, or another who's boarded a plane to run a marathon in Florida, or another who's been to Spain and toured around as though these wars never happened and life is as it was—for them—joyous and everlasting.
This post is dedicated to the Israeli and Palestinian people. May they find a lasting way to peace and reconciliation.