In the Thick of Things (What Makes Sense) – Part 2

nightingale 2
For days now I’d been laboring under a foul mood that would not lift. Ross and I’d had a fight and we were barely speaking. A real low point for us. I couldn’t bear his anger, his withdrawal of affection, but I had worked myself up into a state of major aggrievement. Everyone in the office decided this was the perfect time to be as irritating as possible—no one ever shut up and it was impossible to think, like being stuck in an empty oil drum with some bastard banging away on the outside. Our house was the usual three-ring circus, and even standing at the edge of the Sound could not calm me, the ocean breezes insistent, hassling. Several particularly distressing reports came in and the political news was not good, either. HRI’s big benefit concert in New York was three days away, and I was seriously thinking about going somewhere else, anywhere else, just to get away. People were the problem, I decided; people messed everything up, and I longed once again to stow away to a cottage in Maine with only cats for creature comfort and the birds for company.

I could just imagine the ride down to New York with Ross, his lecturing — I should do this, why didn’t I do that? He wanted me to be fulfilled, but advancing along that road wasn’t easy. Every time I complained about something, he had some constructive advice at the ready, some action to suggest—completely annoying. Maybe I just wanted to complain. It was easy for him; he was brought up to be a star. He hadn’t sat on his hands in class as a young girl, knowing the answer, but knowing just as well that to be too good or too smart would ultimately mean to be unloved. A lesson once learned not easily let go of. To shrink yourself down to nothing so as not to offend, and then not be able to rise again or shine. To agree that you’re nothing until you finally believe that you are. And then to take the punishing consequences of that nothingness. Why don’t I start to paint again? Why don’t I look into going back to school instead of just talking about it? Why can’t I just push forward? Why can’t I push forward? He wasn’t going to let it go. All these invisible restrictions. All this hidden damage. Leave me alone, I just got here. I need time to let my bruises heal.

The Labor Day “Work for Freedom” Concert at Randall’s Island, New York: Ross stayed backstage all day giving interviews to various media outlets, an archer working his craft, fitting arrow after arrow to his bow, aiming, shooting to sometimes hit the mark. I stayed behind the stage for the most part, too, self-consciously fussing with my precious laminated pass, standing around gawking at the famous unless sent scurrying on the occasional errand for Gretchen, but when the Tibetan devotional singer came out on the stage midway through the concert, I left the VIP enclosure and ventured out into the crowd.

I especially wanted to see her because of the vague cultural connection with Izzie and Ben, a silly but emotional pull. After standing up close for a little while, I turned my back on the stage and walked away, away from the massive screens towering on both sides, wandered through the masses swirling and swaying all around me with their thousands of arms raised overhead, their thousands of hands clapping; the humid air trapped and held down upon us by the lowering rain clouds. The singer had come on after an intense rock group and a self-important fiery speaker, but the small woman standing still in the middle of the stage with her eyes closed, accompanied only by somber drums and bells brought a calm down upon the crowd, broken occasionally by an uplifting breeze carrying her undulating voice out to the far reaches of the park, the banners billowing, wafting in empathy, and most people were listening except for pockets of idiots on the fringes, a reflective, pensive mood settling over the people for a short while, brought about by the beauty of the singer’s voice and an intuitive understanding of her intentions and desires.

I ventured farther out into the hinterland and felt that, if indeed a large group of individuals could sustain a single emotion, everyone did wish at that moment for something good, that for a time we were all connected by her emotion and by the desire to believe that what we felt mattered, a desire to be better than we were, as if we were all simultaneously striking a strenuous pose, beautiful but unnatural. The ache in the soul inflicted by this yearning was heightened by our doubt in our skill and strength to hold that pose, and the knowledge that our hearts had the capacity to recognize and embrace good, but not the ability to keep it close within us. So we could only let ourselves go for the moment and let this feeling carry us along as far as it could. It wouldn’t be too long before we would hit the rocks, one after the other.

* * *

Gretchen had been among us for two days now, palpating vulnerabilities until she found the tender spots, pushing everything around. Yesterday Tyler made the rounds, offering the staff pulls from his flask; today he didn’t even bother to show up. She was working at Renny’s desk and had been talking at length on the phone, her voice growing higher and louder as the conversation progressed. I was at the file cabinets nearby. The call over, she slammed the phone down and leaned back in her chair letting her head fall back as far as it would go, scarf halfway off her head, chicken-bone arms limp at her sides. No self-circumspection. Without further warning she screamed at the top of her lungs, “Doesn’t anyone here know anything about the UN Declaration of Human Rights!”

She scared the hell out of me, causing my heart to skip, but once I realized it was a rhetorical question, I went on with my filing.

I am writing to appeal for the immediate release of André Yantou, who worked for the Cameroon Development Corporation before being arrested in December 1986, following a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses held in his house. Since that time, Mr. Yantou has been held without charge or trial at Buea Prison, in South West Province.

Although a 1970 Presidential decree banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses in your country, it has never been suggested that the group is opposed to the government or that its members wish to do anything but peacefully practice their religious beliefs.

Because André Yantou is being detained only for his non-violent religious beliefs and Article 9 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, I wish to once again appeal to you for his unconditional release.

Please accept my sincere appreciation for your time and interest in this matter.

* * *

Colleen was feeling down; she was not getting anywhere. Her emotional yearnings were producing a lot of heat, but precious little light. She was worn out from the constant scorching. She turned to Tyler who felt compelled to cheer her up. “Get out, I’m telling you. Get out while you can,” he lectured at her. “This is a non-profit organization; we don’t do anything properly, and we don’t care.” He ticked off a list on his fingers. “Our people don’t get health insurance and we pay them next to nothing; we eat our own basically—there’s always another poor sucker who’ll come along thinking he can help save the world.” Next finger. “God knows what Fowler and Templeton are doing when we don’t have the pleasure of watching them, huh?” Third finger. “Gretchen.” He made a gesture with his hand on this last point as if shooting himself in the head, closing one eye, sticking out his tongue. “That’s the way it is.”

She had been arrested several years ago for possessing Ukrainian nationalist literature and charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” There was no evidence of violence in her history as a human rights activist and HRI was concerned for her safety. A diminutive woman of ethereal looks with long blonde hair and a lovely face. In this upside-down world, however, her beauty was a curse, something to be despised and destroyed. She was raped repeatedly in prison, passed around from guard to guard, from cell to cell, her hair eventually torn out, her face bloodied and broken. She kept her sanity by learning several languages, the one type of book she was allowed, between the violations. Linguistics became her salvation, her one remaining line to heaven. The security of rules that are followed, of things that make sense, the unshakable reality of the written word, the lines of poetry repeated over and over as she heard the footsteps coming down the hall for her. From our contacts we knew what was happening to her in there and we worked frantically for her release, not so much anymore for her physical integrity as for her soul. When she was finally released eight years to the month she went in, what was left of her hair had turned white, her beauty long ago pounded away. But she was still breathing. Still seeing. A few months later, headquarters received a card from her, and they sent out a photocopy to all of us . . .

“Through you I would like to thank all the good people who did so much for me and our entire family . . .The doctors, bless their souls, have somewhat treated me, but not everything that has been lost can be regained. Summer has come to Odessa; the nightingales have returned—I haven’t seen them for so long.”


…………………………….. END OF PART I ……………………….


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