On the Dance Floor, Waiting for War
Living with tragedy
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about the places where our politics gets personal. This week’s issue is about my little brother, who is in the Army and how I’ve been trying to live with my heart always in my throat.
My little brother is over there. I’m not sure where exactly. He’s in the Army, and on January 28, he was deployed to Germany or Poland or maybe Romania. He can’t tell us. And then, last week, he told us he’d no longer be able to access his phone. He was going dark. So all I have are the brief and vague news updates on social media from his unit.
And so, every day I read the news about Russia and Ukraine and try to interpret the whims of leaders and statesmen. All the while, I know he’s there waiting for something to happen. And even though I know this isn’t true, I imagine him sitting in a dark room, waiting, waiting. I keep having dreams about him in a dark room, just sitting and waiting. I can hear him breathe and any moment a door will open and the light will pour in and he will run out. But for now, he’s just sitting.
This isn’t his first deployment. But I keep worrying it’s his last. He’s my baby in a way. I’m 10 years older than him. I’m the second born, and he’s number 7 out of the 8 of us. I remember lugging him around with me when we’d go outside to play at our house in Texas. I remember him sobbing when I left for college; he was only 8 then. The age my son is now. My memories of him as a baby blend together with my memories of my son as a baby. They both loved to sing with me. And for both of them, I’d sing “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and make up verses for that perfect fictional world where the bluebird sings by the lemonade springs.
“Name one good thing, buddy,” I say. And then I turn that good thing into a verse, where we imagine a world where that good thing always exists and never goes away. Is it puppies or ice cream? I can’t remember which boy liked what the most.
They both look so much alike and act alike that time seems to collapse in on itself.
Last year, at this time, I was worried about my youngest brother (number 8), who was in the hospital with pneumonia. He made it out okay. But here we are again. This is the downside of having seven siblings—it’s seven more ways for your heart to break.
Life in the pandemic has felt like sitting on a precipice, just one big gust of wind away from being blown off and down into a canyon of tragedy. I suppose life is always like this. All it takes is one moment, one phone call, one gentle nudge, and everything can fall apart. But in order to keep going, we can’t think like that. Or I can’t think like that. I can’t wake up and think, today might be the day someone I love dies, because I would not be able to move.
Buzzfeed reporter Christopher Miller wrote about Ukrainians living under the specter of imminent invasion: “They are organizing volunteer defense forces and holding seminars to teach first aid; prepping bomb shelters and sharing advice on what to pack in ‘emergency suitcases.’ But they are also lining up for films—one playing at the Zhovten movie theater in the historic Podil neighborhood is titled Everything Will Be All Right. They’re enjoying cocktails at the Who & Why speakeasy and hitting the dance floor with friends at quirky bars like Gnezdo.”
I think about this a lot now: Ukrainians dancing while waiting for war.
Nicole Chung wrote a newsletter for the Atlantic about how to explain the spate of violence against Asian American women to her daughter. She noted, “Should I tell you that I don’t want you to walk through the world afraid, even though I have sometimes walked through the world afraid?”
I meet someone who tells me that just the other day he was driving his car when suddenly it was engulfed in flames. Just driving down the highway and then suddenly on fire. We laugh about it, because he’s okay. But if it weren’t real life it would feel like a metaphor. And I say the thing about life being on the edge, one gust away from tragedy, but said out loud in a sports bar, it sounds so melodramatic. That we laugh again, because what else can we do in that specific moment?
Inflation is rising. Women’s rights are being eroded. Anti-trans legislation is being passed by lawmakers across the country. I have friends who tell me how afraid they are to exist as gay or trans. I am afraid for them too.
Tragedy is everywhere, and I’m trying to figure out how to dance.
I am very tired of being mired in all this worry. But I don’t want to pretend it’s not happening. And I don’t know how to do that: To honestly see the world for what it is, but still wake up and find some joy.
G.K. Chesterton wrote something hilarious that I stumbled across recently. He was talking about Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. And he argues, quite pointedly:
It is one of the most powerful things ever written, and it is one of the things about which I doubt most whether it ought ever to have been written at all. It describes two innocent children gradually growing at once omniscient and half-witted under the influence of the foul ghosts of a groom and a governess. As I say, I doubt whether Mr. Henry James ought to have published it (no, it is not indecent, do not buy it; it is a spiritual matter), but I think the question so doubtful that I will give that truly great man a chance. I will approve the thing as well as admire it if he will write another tale just as powerful about two children and Santa Claus. If he will not, or cannot, then the conclusion is clear; we can deal strongly with gloomy mystery, but not with happy mystery; we are not rationalists, but diabolists.
I don’t think Chesterton really understood The Turn of the Screw. But literary criticism aside, I concede his point. If we are going to acknowledge the pain and terror of life, we also have to see its joy. If we are going to be blown off the precipice into tragedy, we can also be blown off into a world of miracles.
And that’s what I keep thinking now: Dancing while waiting for war. The Turn of the Screw but with Santa.
After I wrote this, I decided to take the day off. It was a beautiful day. I was in New York. So a friend and I walked Fifth Avenue discussing Edith Wharton and literary gossip. We talked about how Wharton’s world never mentions the war or the diseases that ravaged the city. And why that must be. It was a wonderful day. And then, that night, Russia bombed Ukraine. And the world tipped into war.
Thank you for reading. Please stay safe out there.