Got in the door at Ed’s Real Scoop just as they were about to close.
Finally had my appointment with the tropical disease clinic. Seems what I had in the Philippines was likely dengue fever.
So exotic sounding. Feels like I should look like that shivering, yellow guy in Out of Africa who’s secretly taken the Kikuyu wife.
(I did actually feel like that. Except for the secret concubine thing).
Still feeling quite fragile, actually, and not so thrilled about going to Uganda on Tuesday after finding out that there’s no prophylaxis for dengue (I knew that) except not getting bitten by daytime mosquitoes, and if you get it a second time, you can end up with a hemorrhagic fever. Which, according to my doc today, is “fine in the first world, but you don’t want to be bleeding in rural Uganda.”
I think that time in the Philippines now officially counts as the Worst Holiday Ever. “Two women found themselves unexpectedly alone in an far-off land at Christmas, finding nervous friendship and laughter and quiet underwater joy in the midst of heartbreak, until one was felled by dengue fever.”
Feeling like maybe I shouldn’t have made fun of that woman on the Baja trip who wore a bug net every time we left the ship.
A few years ago, I did a project with a group of nurses where we explored the “essence” of nursing, what makes a good nurse. “Nurses stay when they want to go,” reflected one of the leaders. “Nurses are there with people in their worst pain, and anger, and breaking down of their bodies, and facing the things no one wants to face.”
I’ve pondered the significance of bearing witness, of being present to people’s pain, for a while. I’ve mentioned a few times the impulse I had to be present to the experience of the couple who lost their child, Stella, last year, to assiduously follow their blog and just nod and listen as they dealt with the inarticulable worst that can happen. During that time, a lot of people said to me “I can’t bear to read it.”
That word, bear. Bearing witness, the unbearable. Uttered by people who can’t be with each other’s pain, about other people’s pain. A word we rarely use except in this context, being with something that bites at our worst imaginings and fears, challenges us to hold onto our belief in our own strength and humanity.
A friend stood present to someone who was dying over the holidays. “I have to be with that. I think a lot of people can’t be with what’s really happening here.” Described the fight in the death, the railing against the pain. Being with.
We met with a group today that seared the importance of bearing witness into my soul. We’re doing some work with a group trying to bring more collective voice to victims of crime. There were about 25 people in the room who have become advocates in one way or another, had advocacy thrust upon them because of experience no one ever wanted — and, I realized, people can’t bear to know about. It shocked me how much just sharing a room meant to them, feeling heard.
One after another, the stories were clear: the need to tell their story; the need to count in the process. “I walked across the country,” said one man, who’d lost his son to murder. “The physical ordeal was nothing. The people telling me “it can’t happen in my community” was the painful part. People don’t want to know that bad things happen to good people.”
A woman whose son was murdered in a grisly, horrific story that everyone is familiar with, whose mention made us all shudder and close our mouths tight, said simply, “I don’t have a voice. People don’t want to know that this actually happened.”
A lot of our conversation was about systemic voice — the power of victim impact statements, the strength that comes with being able to be at an inquest or parole hearing. The deep need to be as much a part of the process as the offender, to be seen as mattering. And underneath it, simply, the need to be heard, the need to know that someone knows what happened to you, how simply terrible it was.
I was thinking about what it means to stay when you want to go, how hard it might be in the middle of a breakup or to be with a loved one’s death. And how as a culture, we can’t bear to know about what truly broken people do to each other, metaphorically or really stick our fingers in our ears. When the story of the grisly murder has come up in conversation, I’ve had friends say over and over “I can’t know about that, don’t talk about it.”
And then there is this woman, who’s lost her son to the unnameable. And I realized today the incredible pain embedded across this group of people, who feel voiceless, who feel that not only have they lost people they loved, or their own capacity or function, but that in having their experiences muted, they’ve lost the most human thing we have: to tell our stories, to connect, to find hope in human connection, in learning from each other that soft light might follow the worst despair, the softening that comes from being known, having someone say simply, I’m sorry that happened, that is a terrible, terrible thing.
I thought there would be more anger in the room, and what there was was energy. Energy to be heard, energy to find hope in collective sharing of voice, energy to have people hear what it means to be injured in this way, to mobilize change in the silence.
When we were at the dive resort with the Finns, Rachel and I took to calling the taller one the Valkyrie. Along with speaking fake Finnish, we spent some of our time trying to imagine a poem or a novel called The Valkyrie Glows. Larger than mortal, blonde, strong, literally glowing after their sauna and then Christmas Eve.
“You two are glowing — another sauna?”
“No, it was something else.”
I think they meant something like aquavit but it felt like the smaller one must have been servicing the Valkryie with some heavenly elixir.
She was a very practical goddess, this Valkyrie, given to good-natured pronouncements that struck us as hilarious, her English nearly perfect but just the teeniest bit off.
“I went to find out where the karaoke was, and I put my song in the queue but it was too long. It was a pity they did not have more Finnish songs.”
She went to Carleton for a year as an undergrad, and told a story of refusing to use the tunnels for shelter, of forcing herself into a blizzard to write an exam, finding herself crawling on her hands and knees up a snowbank, muttering “Why must I be so stubborn and Finnish?”
Her glowing, deep, inner Finnishness touched off something in me about identify and essence. Why MUST we be so stubborn and Finnish?
The nature of identity is never very far from my preoccupations, the force that we call “oughtness” in the CMM world about the things that we simply feel we “must” do, because that is how “a person like me” behaves.
One of the things that has crossed my mind about photos in 2013 is to take a shot of myself everyday. The notion of posting such shots fills me with horror — I can’t imagine anything more ego-centric than to post 365 photos of myself — but I’ve always been quite fascinated by self-portraits, especially self-portraits in contrast to portraits of other people. So let’s call this an occasional part of the 2013 series, and since today is a travel day, Cate, about to leave England, Jan 2, 2013.