Writing, Writing & Reading

On the Subject of Flying

This week marks the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01.  In light of this, I have decided to post an essay that I wrote in the summer of 2006.  Portions of it are clearly dated, but it is a piece that is close to my heart and that, before this, has not had the opportunity to see the light of day, so I’d like to share it with you now.

As I walk toward the airplane, I feel my anxiety begin to prickle.  I have flown twice without incident since my brother’s death, but I find that this latest trip has awakened my fear.  I wonder if this flight might also be a doomed one.  I am less concerned for myself than for my mother.  I cannot stomach the idea of her losing another child, let alone to these flighty, airborne things.

My heart still wrenches as I think back to a month earlier when we sat awaiting my sister’s arrival at another airport.  I remember the young man in his late twenties striding through the gate, to be greeted by overjoyed parents.  It seemed as though the mother had to see and touch nearly every square inch of her son—hugging him repeatedly and plucking off his cap to examine his hair.  She tended to him as if to a newborn, making certain that her child is the perfect little bundle she had hoped for—ten fingers, ten toes.

I remember watching my mother watch this other mother do what she could never again do, and I am determined to remain alive if only for her sake.  She will tell me later that as she left me at the security gate, waiting to board an American Airlines flight, she had to stop herself from telling the security guard to make sure the plane was terrorist-free.  “One of your planes killed my son,” she wanted to rail, “you’d better keep my daughter safe!”

Hearing this will again pull on my emotions, but I am reluctant to assign blame in this matter.  A great deal of energy has been invested in placing responsibility for the murder of nearly three thousand people, but the idea of knowing how and why it happened holds little comfort for me.  Although I appreciate the need for investigating security weaknesses and apprehending conspirators in order to prevent further violence, I have no desire for retribution.

Not long after the attacks I was interviewed for a documentary about them.  Its creator, Roz, was much impressed by my lack of anger toward the terrorists, and my unwillingness to exact vengeance.  I related to her my strange lifelong fascination with terrorists.  They have seemed to me an almost wholly helpless people, struggling to gain a sliver of control over their lives.  Even on the day, when I was rushing toward my brother’s apartment in Weehawken, NJ, I felt a great sorrow for those who felt so unheard, so alone, so frustrated, and perhaps even so hopeless that they could see their fellow human beings as unholy aliens deserving of death.

I told Roz how I had always wondered what it would be like to be on the receiving end of an act of violence—not that I really wanted to find out—but, I wondered if vengeance was a natural reaction for everyone.  I soon found that for me, it wasn’t.  I just wanted people to stop hurting each other.

My apprehension lingers as I step onto the plane.  It is heightened by a sudden idea that perhaps this fear is my intuition popping up to tell me not to board.  I flash on a picture of myself plummeting in this doomed aircraft—my inner voice shaking its head at me.  “I tried to tell you,” it sighs, “but do you ever listen to me?”  I decide on a “better safe than sorry” approach and do a surreptitious gut check.  I might as well entertain my intuition if only for these few seconds.  “Do you really feel like this flight is in danger?” I ask.  The faintest of replies in the negative eases my concern.  At least now, if the plane does crash, I won’t have to suffer any self-recriminations on the way down.

My thoughts return to my conversation with Roz.  The notion of war unsettles me, and I realize that I have never been able to stomach fighting—of any kind.  Watching West Side Story as a child, I sobbed uncontrollably when Bernardo killed Riff, and Tony, in his turn, stabbed Bernardo.  I was inconsolable for hours afterward—shaken by what humans are capable of—good and bad—and for the choices they could make and the choices that they ultimately do make.

All this is not to say that I don’t have my own violent impulses.  When I was driving home from my brother’s apartment on September 12, I saw a car with the word REVENGE! posted in its rear windshield.  A flood of frustration, horror, and anger sluiced through me.  It was all I could do not to ram that car from behind.  I knew my impulse was dangerously close to the driver’s own attitude, but I just wanted to pull him over and say, “Don’t you get it?  I don’t care who they are or what they’ve done to us.  I don’t want anyone else to feel what I’m feeling!  I don’t want anyone else’s brother to get blown up!”

As the plane edges toward the runway, I go through my usual routine of debating whether or not to listen to the safety instructions.  Having flown a number of times before, I suspect I am almost as fluent in them as the flight attendant is.  Besides, embarrassing as it is to admit, it doesn’t seem very cool to listen.  Looking around at my fellow passengers, I notice that few, if any, are paying the bored looking attendant any heed, and I find myself thinking that I don’t want to look like a scared little ninny who has never flown before.  In light of my recent anxiety however, I decide to pay a casual attention.

My mind wanders again though as I imagine how the passengers of those flights must have felt.  They sat much as we do, unconcernedly reading their magazines, tranquilly chatting with seatmates.  As yet unaware of the fear that would overtake them once they were airborne—once the men with the blades and mace had taken over.

And as the plane taxis leisurely, I imagine what those men must have felt.  Did their hearts beat so loudly they thought everyone must hear?  Did they feel a sense of satisfaction at the chaos and violence they would inflict?  Did they have second thoughts?  Did they wonder—ever so briefly—about the families of the people they soon meant to kill?

And how did they feel just before impact when the incontrollable self-survival instincts flooded their bodies with adrenaline one last time.  Did they rush into those buildings with a sense of serenity, a knowledge of fulfillment, of completion?  Or did they experience the regret of one who might have made a different choice if only given the chance?  Or did the natural terror of impending violent death consume them just a fragment before the flames did?

As the airplane begins to soar, banking toward the side I am sitting, I look out at the setting sun and think of my brother.  Peter was fascinated by planes and aviation.  He had taken several flying lessons in the years before his death, and had just soloed for the first time in the summer of 2001.  I thought of how he would like the view of the city from the air.  I thought of how on clear, sunny days he would look up into the sky, and, regardless of what I was talking about, respond, “Today would be a great day for flying.”

I reflect again on the people who killed my brother.  I also contemplate the real and valid anger my countrymen feel toward them that I cannot seem to summon.  I know that everything is not okay, and I agree that people have a righteous desire, and maybe even an entitlement, to protect their families, but I cannot help fearing their potential actions as much as I do another attack.  I fear the anger that might allow a lack of understanding to slip into hatred.  And it’s not always the same people doing the hating, or the same people being hated.  Some Americans call the terrorists evil.  Other Americans put the president who declared war on them into the same class.  I cannot resign either party to that realm.  I have come to believe that there is value in every human being, a lesson each could teach me—if I decided I wanted to learn.  I believe that the Divine lives in all of us.  By this logic, I cannot hate my earthly cohabitants without hating my God—and although I’ll admit things have been rough, I’m not quite ready to go down that road.

I may not be able to understand terrorists, and they may be baffled and even contemptuous of me, but surely, surely there must be something that could bridge the gap between our disparate lives—if only for an instant.  And in that instant, could we not spark a glimmer of mutual understanding?  A tiny granule of appreciation for the other’s life—regardless of ideology, geography, or deeds?  And could not that particle be a seed that might grow into something recognizable?  We are all humans after all.  We cannot be that terribly different.  I am certain many of them held commonalities with my brother—had sisters and mothers they loved, and dreams they hoped to fulfill.

I do grasp the harsh reality, however, that had I seen one of those men on that day, it is likely that no interchange between us would have altered the course of events.  If I understand nothing else, I understand pain—and the pain that these men suffered, from real or imagined causes, was most likely, too great to find a different outcome.

As the plane begins its descent through the clouds, I watch the movements of the wings.  On commercial flights my brother used to deliberately ask for a seat overlooking the wing.  He loved to watch them manipulate the air, triumphing over gravity, and then finally yielding to it when it was time to land.  I watch the night beyond the wing, the glittering lights below, knowing that my flight will not end in a building, but on the properly prepared runway waiting beneath us.  I will walk off this plane into a seemingly unending life with seemingly unending challenges.  Yet I realize the folly in this way of thinking.  One thing my brother’s death has brought home for me is that my life is a blink of an eye, a breath, a whisper.  My only refuge is in living respectfully and audaciously—to follow in his footsteps and maybe even surpass him.

I told my father after the attacks, after I had witnessed the kindness friends and strangers alike were glad to extend to those of us who were hurting the most, that perhaps this horrible thing had to have happened to remind us of our mortality and our humanity.  I reasoned that perhaps God had arranged Peter’s involvement because our family was strong enough to withstand the pain.  He was aghast at the idea, but my heart was so warmed by the incredible benevolence my fellow humans were willing to offer, that I hoped that September 11 would be an awakening of human compassion—one that might finally endure—a call to hearts, rather than a call to arms.

Now, just a few years later, I see my hopes deteriorating.  I see a return to our former indifference to one another, added to solely, by a newfound fear.  I wonder if I am naïve to believe that everything can and will be okay and that fighting is not the answer.  The only alternative I can come up with seems, on paper, silly and rather innocent.  Am I ridiculous to think that the best thing I can do is stand firm and send love all the way around?  Not that it’s easy, mind you.  Not that I even want to.  Hating seems to take a lot less effort, and the idea of evil is so much more concrete and gratifying than allowing the existence, let alone prosperity, of those I disagree with.

And there seem to be so many now—lists of people, whose agenda I once shared, finding little ticks next to their names because they don’t reinforce my opinions, from politics to baseball, from literature to behavior choices.  It doesn’t take much for me to discount even a stranger.  I don’t like the way he dresses.  I don’t approve of the way she acts.  There are so many I am tempted to brand as untouchable that I am rapidly finding myself alone.

So I pray for a loosening of my judgmental nature.  I pray for the ability not to have to understand.  I pray for a love that won’t conquer all, but instead sneaks around in the night, kissing my enemies and wishing them sweet dreams.

Just before we land, I look at the wing again.  I do not understand the Bernoulli’s effect that makes this all possible, but I know my brother would delight in explaining it to me—point by exhaustive point.  I think wryly, “I’m glad I don’t have to sit through that.”  But I smile at the notion.  I reach out into the night, sending the smile and a message, “I love you, Pete,” I sigh softly.  From somewhere beyond the clouds, unbidden, the answer returns, “I love you, too.”

Pete flying over Manhattan in July 2001 (taken by Mathew Pelto)
Pete flying over Manhattan in July 2001 (taken by Mathew Pelto)
Reading, Writing, Writing & Reading

Writing Wrongs

    I had no idea I was born to be a rabble-rouser.  I didn’t rebel during my adolescence; I had no desire to make war where a tasteless facsimile of peace had reigned for so long.  I wanted to be quiet and good.  I idolized people who loved the world unconditionally, who willingly swallowed sorrow, pain, and anger, and whose knowing and enigmatic smile was their only condemnation of the senseless acts of those around them. 

    But as I began reading Burn This Book, a collection of essays written in support of PEN—the world’s oldest literary and human rights organization—by the likes of Updike, Morrison, and Rushdie, I felt my spirit pick up its head like a bird who, after sleeping for a great age, senses something in the air that makes it want to fly. 

    Like most people who have enjoyed any lifelong privilege, I hadn’t given too much consideration to the idea that reading and writing are human rights—ones that are still too frequently curtailed.  But as I contemplate it now, I can’t imagine not being allowed to read.  I can never remember a time when I was banned from reading anything.  My childhood home was crammed with books and, to the best of my knowledge, I had access to them all.  I never had any notion that books could be dangerous or in any way evil.  They might be poorly written, possess errant storylines, foul language, discouraging errata, explicit sex—but they were just words on paper; they couldn’t hurt you.  I don’t know at what age I found out about the banning of books, or when I first saw movie footage of poor, little, innocent books being burned.  But I do remember that the former occurrence baffled me and the latter made me physically ill. 

    It’s not just the great enjoyments I’ve gotten from books or the large, mind-altering things I’ve learned from them that inspires me so much.  It’s the little ones too—the fact that even the tiniest morsel of the written word can have a lasting impact.  It thrills me to realize that subtle aspects of books I read as a child still remain poignant to me—and not just the classics, all of them.  I remember the lovely variances of the many cultures on display in Around the World Fairy Tales retold by Vratislav Sťovíček.  The opening sentences of “Springtime à la Carte” from The Complete Works of O. Henry, still make me smile and encourage my fearlessness and irreverence.  I have no idea why, but, even now, I think of the four girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women acting out Pilgrim’s Progress, making up bundles, beginning their trek in the cellar, and journeying to the attic.  The primer in cellular biology I received from Madeleine L’Engle in A Wind in the Door has never left my side.  The President’s Daughter by Ellen Emerson White provided me with a lasting education of what it means to run for office and opened my imagination to the notion of a female president (still waiting . . .).  The Sweet Valley High books created by Francine Pascal informed me about the Sing it Yourself Messiah and eyebrow-plucking.  The Iceberg Hermit by Arthur Roth taught me that alcohol makes you warm.  The Night of the Whale by Jerry Spinelli showed me the terrible sorrow of beached whales.  Barthe DeClements’ and Christopher Greimes’ book Double Trouble gave me my first look at astral bodies and auras.  The King of the Dollhouse by Patricia Clapp taught me how to dust properly.  Biographies of Lafayette and Robert Perry informed of me of what mottoes were in general and what these men’s were in particular (“Why not?” and “I shall find a way or make one”, respectively).  And all this before I had entered middle school.

    Now, when I hear about the high rate of illiteracy among women in Afghanistan and other places—when I think of all that I have been given access to and all that they have been denied, I get choked up.  And a few months ago, when Iranians were again told to shut up and accept their newly “elected” president, when their safeties were threatened for writing anything to oppose him or the legitimacy of his election—either on posters or the internet. . . I felt a sorrow and helplessness I can’t adequately describe.

    I can’t imagine not being able to write.  Actually, I take that back—I too have been the victim of censorship—my own.  There used to be things I thought I couldn’t write about.  And there were things that I would write about, but refused to share with others.  No good, I thought, could come from my voicing certain beliefs, relating certain tales.  They could only hurt.  I was wholly interested in being responsible—not seeing that responsibility may take a different form in the hands of an artist.  According to Salman Rushdie “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, to start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”  But it could be argued (and it often has been by me) that writers use this type of rationale to write whatever they want, for whatever selfish reason they want, and get away with it.  I have been loathe to fall into this category and, as a result, have bent over backward to be fair, to question my motives, to consider the feelings of others—even though my mother frequently tells me “that’s not your job”.

    “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”  When a statement like this comes out of Toni Morrison’s mouth, it sounds completely reasonable and wholly accurate.  I don’t care whether you loved or hated Beloved; we needed her to write that book.  But when I take Ms. Morrison’s quote to heart and apply it to myself, I run into a little trouble.  Are these words I write truly necessary?  How about these?  Again, such quotes may lead us into self-indulgence and over permissiveness: “The world needs to hear my opinion about everything from emotional abuse to M&Ms to flatulence, so I will write it all down and consequences be damned!”  And yet, when I think of people not being allowed to write and not being allowed to read, I start to feel that even the most inane jabbering on Facebook becomes a glorious thing.  Is it right to announce someone’s wrongdoings to the world?  I don’t know.  But sometimes, it is definitely necessary.

    So as it turns out, I am not a “sit quietly and take the world as it is” kind of gal.  (Really, my red hair should have been a clue right off the bat.)  I am nice and loving and kind.  But I am also opinionated and intelligent, and I refuse to yield to any fear that tells me not to use my brain, my voice, or my pen, because doing so would be to disgrace those who have given their very selves for my right to read and write; it would be to unforgivably dishonor those people who, even now, are fighting with their mighty pens to be heard.


For more information about PEN go here: http://pen.org/

For a closer look at Burn This Book go here: http://browseinside.harpercollins.com/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061774003

Nature & Spirituality, Writing, Writing & Reading

Oh, What a Tangled Web

    Lately, the ethics of cleaning have been getting me down. 

    When I was a kid, I had no problem, whatsoever, killing spiders.  I remember my older sister calling me into the bathroom to deal with them.  “Diana, there’s a spider in here,” her edgy voice would relate.  And I would take pride in my fearlessness, as crushed the life out of one more unsuspecting arachnid. 

    As I neared adolescence, I lost my taste for being the brave hero who rescues the damsel and kills the dragon.  I began to wonder: Just what had the dragon done to deserve such treatment anyway?  So, instead of continuing my role as the death squad, whenever I happened on any manner of insect or arachnid, I patiently caught it and escorted it outside. 

    At some point, this time consuming work became impractical, and I then adopted the tactic of simply letting them alone.  I have nothing against spiders.  They don’t scare me or freak me out.  In fact, they are something of a patron for those of us engaged in the needle arts—no crazy quilt is complete without a spider embroidered on it for luck.  On the other hand, I don’t particularly like the live ones crawling on or toward me, so I made a deal with them: they’d stay out of my immediate space, and I wouldn’t go out of my way to molest them in theirs. 

      I had generalized my spider policy to all creepy crawlers (with the exception of ticks, who let’s face it really are out to get us), so that when the ants came and tried to take over our kitchen, I tried not to notice.  I let my mother conduct, first benign and then more aggressive, attempts at coercing their departure.  I looked the other way when she started washing them down the drain.  I tried not to imagine their tiny screams as they circled through endless pipes to an undoubtedly ignominious end.  I let my mom be the bad guy who, with no other options, finally sprayed the ants—ostensibly because I am extremely sensitive to nasty chemicals like bug spray, but I knew I was indulging in avoidance.  I could no longer maintain a spotless conscience.  I was just as guilty of genocide as she.  “I was just following orders” or “I had no idea what was going on” were not going to play at the arthropod Hague.  But had these indeed been war crimes?  There had been no malice behind any of my mother’s actions.  She told me wistfully, “I explained to the ants that they had to leave, and if they didn’t, I would have to kill them.”

    The ignorance is bliss strategy blown to hell, I now have a choice to make as I trundle through the house with my trusty vacuum: to suck or not to suck.  If I don’t think about it, I’m fine: “La, la, la, just cleaning the house.  Not hurting anyone, just clearing the house of dirt.  Hm, hm, hm.” 

    But, all of a sudden, my cavalier attitude becomes a liability.  “How dare you?” some voice within me that sounds a heck of a lot like Yahweh (the big, scary God from the Old Testament).  “How dare you, not only kill God’s creatures, but also act as if you don’t even care?” 

    The voice knows he’s got me just where he wants me.  I look at the next web.  “There’s no spider there,” I think.  “I won’t kill the spider; I’ll just clear the web.” 

    But the voice is cunning, “Oh, so it’s okay to destroy homes as long as you don’t take lives?  Do you have any idea how long it took to make that masterpiece?” 

    I really don’t.  It could have taken only a matter of minutes—but then what are human minutes to a spider?  Oh, dear. 

    “Hey, Hurricane Diana, how much do humans like it when their homes are demolished in a ‘natural disaster’?  Jeeze, your sister lives in New Orleans!  You could have a little bit more sensitivity.” 

    I gulp hard at this.  I consider the very large number of spiders that inhabit our house.  Taking each one of them outside as I find them is going to be akin to a full time job.  I sigh.  “Okay, this one, I will put outside,” I think.

    “Only this one???” the voice questions heartlessly.

    “Oh, shut up!” I tell it, as I gently clasp the spider in my hand. 

    This bit is tricky.  Experience has taught me that spiders in these situations don’t necessarily clue in to the notion that you’re trying to save their lives and, therefore, make the venture as difficult for you as arachnid-ly possible.  They run away from you.  They scamper up your arm.  They parachute off your hand.  And before you know it, you can’t even see the little sucker—which, in hind-sight, was probably the spider’s plan all along.  At least, when this happens, I can make a tenuous peace with my inner conflict: “Well, I tried,” I tell myself resignedly.

   Recently, when I finally did get an uncooperative spider outside, I contemplated what this might mean for him/her.  Had I now separated him from his entire family?  Would she never again see her children?  All of this became moot as I deposited the spider on the back step, and it . . . immediately ran back toward the house.

    Maybe this is a game they play.  “Let’s see how neurotic we can make the human!  Hee, hee, hee.”  If it is, I hope they’re having fun, because I am most definitely not.  And I have to admit to you, here and now, that although I am a tree-hugging dirt worshiper, more often than not, I kill the spiders.  I suck them up with the vacuum cleaner, which is probably not the most humane way of killing anything, but there it is.

    Some days ago, I read a wonderful poem called Fireflies by Cecilia Woloch in which she cops to “not being Buddhist enough to let insects live in my house”—so, apparently, I am not alone in my dilemma.  I am, thankfully, not a Buddhist—otherwise, knowing me, my cognitive dissonance might get really out of hand in these situations. 

    I once met a Buddhist who would not let her cat kill mice because she felt it would hurt the kitty’s chances of trading up in her next reincarnation.  I identify two possible fallacies in this line of reasoning: one, being a cat can be pretty sweet if you live with the right people, how do we know that feline-hood isn’t just a step away from nirvana? And two, it seems cruel and disrespectful to deny a cat her true nature. 

    On the other hand, I can see the opposing argument: don’t well-meaning humans have to struggle to deny their true natures every day?  Aren’t we required to in order to rise above the deep-seeded instincts that tell us to defend ourselves and our territories any cost?  Or are our true true natures purer and high-minded than that?  Or is, perhaps, my true nature a combination of aspects—the base, earthbound one and the spiritual, airworthy one?  And, most importantly, which one of these should be dealing with the gosh darn spiders?

    I don’t know what the “right” answer to this is, but I settle for a little bit of both.  I do kill spiders because I think that, in general, my home is happier and healthier without them.  And, although it seems meaningless and very probably is, I apologize each time my vacuum’s hose finds a new web.  Perhaps there is something better waiting for them.  Perhaps, we, as humans, kill spiders so that we may learn again and again that destruction is a necessary part of life.  Perhaps, by becoming the compassionate, mindful destroyer, we learn more about the true nature of God.

 Thousands Flee Diana

Hurricane Diana


If you’d like to read Fireflies in its entirety, you can find it here: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/08/02

If you’d like to know more about the author of this lovely poem, go here: http://www.ceciliawoloch.com/