Thursday, August 24, 2006

Starry Starry Night

Ok, I think I might be ready to return. It has been a grueling couple of weeks here, camping out in our empty house (the moving van finally arrived on Tuesday), sleeping on the floor in the same room with my children, trying my best to help them cope with the upheaval, and enjoying no break (in the way of child care) to collect myself and my sanity. I have not had the opportunity to allow any random or extraneous thought enter my head, and anything I might've posted during this sojourn would've been sour, if not bilious.

Taking out the recycling tonight, however, breathing in the clean river air and looking up at the sky -- which bursts here with stars from every horizon -- I finally felt some peace. I use the word peace with some trepidation and due reverence, as -- sorry to go somewhat maudlin here -- the one thought that kept entering my mind -- that is, each time I felt I was on the verge of losing it -- was it could be much worse, my kids could be in Beirut.

For as long as I can remember, the word "Beirut" has coded for a generic sense of chaos or disorder. Were world events not as they are at the moment, I'm sure I would have said at some point, in the past day or so, with boxes and belongings strewn about the house, that it's "like Beirut around here." One cannot be so flippant these days, however, as the reality of "Beirut" recently became vivid to us all in a way that renders its generic, metaphorical usage in our argot indecorous, if not callous. It's not like Beirut here, no, not at all.

Indeed where we now live could not be farther (a word for distance) or further (a word for concepts) from the bleak reality of Lebanon's capital city, and it was that very sense of general safety and imminent well-being that helped me endure, even when my special-needs son was unleashing his third or fourth unendurable tantrum of the day. (An interesting loop here: recall my series of posts on the Italian football [soccer] player Materazzi, who claimed he didn't know what the word "terrorist" meant, and that he only used it to describe his young child. . . I know what he was driving at, but still . . . ugh).

Ironically, this sentiment became most present to me on an occasion when my children were keenly frightened: we had a blackout a couple of nights ago. Sure, we lost power from time to time where we last lived, but in a suburb only a couple of miles from the Chicago city line, it never really gets dark. Here, however, a blackout means black. The only lights I could see were those twinkling in the distance from upstate New York, far across the St. Lawrence. Blythe and Ollie were (as they say) seriously freaked (especially in the house, which was still empty), but to "redirect" them (as they say in parenting lingo), I took them outside to look at the stars, indeed to behold an assemblage of sky lights such as they have never seen.

The Milky Way washes across the sky above our house, and all the major constellations (e.g., the big and little dippers, Casiopeia, Andromeda, etc) are crisp and clear. That night we saw two shooting stars (August is high season for them), and I taught them the difference between a satellite (a steady light that moves swiftly across the sky) and an airplane (which has blinking lights), as well as how you can tell a star (which twinkles) from a planet (which doesn't: whither Pluto?). Enthralled by the sight, they nonetheless remained anxious, and I marvelled, empathetically, at the sense of disorientation my children felt in being precipitously disconnected from the electronic media that had been an ineluctable part of their world (views).

It reminded me of when I was teaching in East LA, and had helped chaperone a field trip a new and innovative biology teacher ("Mr. Libby") arranged for his sophomores to visit the desert. Joshua Tree Monument Park, to be exact (where that U2 album cover was photographed). These kids were so accustomed to the unrelenting din of the inner city -- the music, the street noise, (yes) the gunfire -- that they were visibly and audibly unhinged by the silence of the desert. They "acted out" by making as loud a ruckus a hundred or so fifteen-year-old Mexican-American boys can possibly make. It was too quiet for them -- they had to compensate, somehow make that tranquil ecosystem their own.

Being the nature groupie I am, undaunted, if not buoyed, by the delectable silence, I led the boys off on all sorts of excursions, and, leading them down off of Jumbo Rocks, proceeded to fall into a crevice and break my arm. But that's another post (Miz Doo-har-deen, Miz Doo-har-deen, are you okay?) . . . though, as I think about it, not really. In the middle of the California desert, on a steaming school bus, no hospital for miles and miles, my arm visibly (nauseatingly) very broken, we finally reached a care center: but the medics wouldn't give me any painkillers because I was still technically supervising children. Ouch.

The beauty of that story is this: that on the long trip back to East LA, I had fifteen-year-old Mexican-American boys offering me their gang bandanas to soak in water and lay on my arm. Despite my pain-induced delirium, I will never forget the sight of red and blue and white bandanas -- the colors of opposing gangs -- wrapped together around my zig-zag forearm. A beautiful sight -- really, the kind one would hope to see in places such as Beirut.

Asleep right now in Arcadian Ontario, my children won't see the likes of the inner city for some time (until they follow their mum to work there of their own volition). For them it's another peaceful starry starry night. I wish the same peace for everyone's children, from East LA to Baghdad to Beirut.

And yes, I am consciously citing Don MacLean's "Starry Starry Night" (which has been threading through my head since I first began this), MacLean's tribute to Vincent Van Gogh. . .

"And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, you took your life, as lovers often do . . . but I could've told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you . . ."

Bon nuit.

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