I want very badly to challenge the ease with which we succumb to the false divide of labels, that moment in which our empathy gives out and we refuse to respond openhandedly or even curiously to people with whom we differ. As I see it, to refuse the possibility of finding another person interesting, complex and as complicated as oneself is a form of violence. At bottom, this is a refusal of nuance, and I wish to posit that nuance is sacred. To call it sacred is to value it so much and esteem it so highly that we find it fitting to somehow set it apart as something to which we’re forever committed. Nuance refuses to envision others degradingly, denying them the content of their own experience, and talks us down tenderly from the false ledges we’ve put ourselves on. When we take it on as a sacred obligation, nuance also delivers us out of the deadly habit of cutting people out of our own imaginations. This opens us up to the possibility of at least occasionally finding one another beautiful, the possibility of communion.
― David Dark, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
To think better, to think like the best humans, we are probably going to have to learn again to judge a person’s intelligence, not by the ability to recite facts, but by the good order or harmoniousness of his or her surroundings. We must suspect that any statistical justification of ugliness and violence is a revelation of stupidity.
―Wendell Berry, “People, Land, and Community”, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
Years after a catastrophe, resilience continues to express itself. Memory lets us relive and reinterpret past events, unpacking things that overwhelmed us and growing our response over time. It is not an easy process. The approach of a date, a particular smell, image, or snippet of music can send us back to a deeply fearful place. Some try to forget, but the things we hide from the daylight have a way of resurfacing in our dreams. Unexpressed emotions can be powerful poisons. A world that suppresses history is a world in which violence simmers continually just beneath the collective consciousness. Resilience grows in the soil of our stories, informing the people we become, passing through us into our relationships and communities. We must share with one another if we want to survive.
This prose poem is the work of my friend, Sherry Cheng, a vibrant, warm and intelligent Chinese American woman who came to the United States in her teenage years. In it, she relates how the catastrophic events that happened in Tiananmen Square on a fateful day in 1989 impacted her, her family and her future husband. Her raw honesty speaks volumes, simple and clear. There cannot be many things more terrifying than a government that kills, imprisons and intimidates people with impunity.
Let me set the stage. On June 4, 1989, a peaceful, student-led protest is violently suppressed by the Chinese government, as the military, armed with rifles and tanks, kills at least several hundred unarmed people in Tiananmen Square. The images of tanks plowing down students shocks the world. Wei, Sherry’s future husband, is at the Central Conservatory, where he studies viola. Almost a decade before he will meet his wife, he steps out of the conservatory into a war zone. Sherry is sixteen and sits in front of a television set in an apartment in Starkville, MS, as horrific reports of the violence in her homeland flood the screen. Sherry’s aunt, a student at the University of Chicago who had taken donations from Americans to the student protesters at Tiananmen Square, boards a plane back to Chicago with her three year old son. She is also pregnant. Plain clothes police waiting on the plane meet her and take her and her son to prison. They will be missing for nearly two weeks, while her family uses every connection they have to find them. It will take a couple of months and a promise that she will never again be politically active for the family to secure their release.
Violence is not an anonymous phenomenon. The aggressors, the injured, the killed, the witnesses: they all have faces.
June 4, 1989
29 years ago today the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, bullets flew overhead while a young man lay prostrate on the ground right outside the Central Conservatory gates. He saw a little girl shot down,
an innocent bystander,
her Mother wailing.
A 16 year old girl across the ocean sat transfixed, as events transpired on her TV screen. She could not control her tears as images passed by of bloodied bodies piled on makeshift carts.
Hope turned to fear that day and for months after. Innocent deaths, interrogations, terror, arrests… The girl’s aunt, who had helped distribute funds to the peaceful protesters, disappeared from the airport on route to Chicago, her whereabouts unknown for weeks. She had her 3 year old son with her, as well as another one on the way.
Fast forward 29 years… I mark this day every year because forgetting is easy, even for those who experienced the terror first hand, like my husband. even for those who believed so strongly in an ideal that they would’ve given their lives for it, like my aunt. Because life does go on. We move forward.
So many have forgotten. For each new generation the memory grows dimmer. History is reevaluated and reinterpreted. Black and white, right and wrong, everything is blurred. Amnesia sets in. Ideals are lost.
But I’m still here, so is Wei. We carry that history with us. We will tell our stories every year, even when no one is listening.
What is the matter with these people, these people who won’t stop fighting, won’t stop hurting each other long enough to see that a body is a thing of beauty, is a miracle of rivers and oceans and islands and continents contained within itself? That the brain is divided into two hemispheres, each symmetrical, each perfect, each with its own system of waterways. These people of war should be shown an x-ray of an intraparenchymal hemorrhage, of a hemorrhage in an eighteen-year-old girl’s brain, a girl named Ivy. Take a look at that, people of war. See, you should not hurt each other, and this is why. Without you ever even trying, this is what can happen to your body, your beautiful body, and your brain, your beautiful symmetrical brain, and your heart, and your soul.
―Alison McGhee, All Rivers Flow to the Sea
On either side of a potentially violent conflict, an opportunity exists to exercise compassion and diminish fear based on recognition of each other’s humanity. Without such recognition, fear fueled by uninformed assumptions, cultural prejudice, desperation to meet basic human needs, or the panicked uncertainty of the moment explodes into violence.
―Aberjhani, Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays
There is an old German fable about porcupines who need to huddle together for warmth, but are in danger of hurting each other with their spines. When they find the optimum distance to share each others’ warmth without putting each others’ eyes out, their state of contrived cooperation is called good manners. Well, those old German fabulists certainly knew a thing or two. When you acknowledge other people politely, the signal goes out, “I’m here. You’re there. I’m staying here. You’re staying there. Aren’t we both glad we sorted that out?” When people don’t acknowledge each other politely, the lesson from the porcupine fable is unmistakable. “Freeze or get stabbed, mate. It’s your choice.”
―Lynne Truss, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door
We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And someday we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddamn steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in it and cover it up.
Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist, once asked a group of women at a university why they felt threatened by men. The women said they were afraid of being beaten, raped, or killed by men. She then asked a group of men why they felt threatened by women. They said they were afraid women would laugh at them.
―Molly Ivins, Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?
How do we deal with things that scare and anger us? Art can help us work through fear toward hope.
My newest painting came about while I was meditating on fear. I wanted to know what my mind would put on the canvas if I thought about things that scare me and visualized the colors of terror. The result is The Execution of Peace, hued not only in the expected oppressive greys and blacks, but in bright oranges, pinks, purples, blues, reds and whites. This piece explores the sharper side of fear, especially those horrors which become active and aggressive. At the end of the process I found that I had obliterated any traces of green, which for me connotes growth. So, what is going on in this busy picture?
There are three zones present: earth, a blasted heath that looks ill and charred; sky, which is blue but teeming with yellow and purple “clouds” and pollution; and a celestial region above the sky which features a storm cloud and an enormous, bloated sun. The two levels of sky are separated by a red stripe spotted with many colors, an umbilical cord which symbolizes life and its continuation.
The action of the piece is taking place in the regions above earth. The sun has grown to enormous size and deepened into orange, suggesting something apocalyptic. The upper atmosphere has taken on the hue of the dying sun, but the left hand corner contains a dense storm, from which emanate three bolts of lightning. There is a dove, with a distinct halo, standing protectively on the umbilical cord. His halo is echoed by a similar nimbus around the sun. Both seem to be barely holding off the onslaught of the stormy darkness.
For me, the dove, associated with peace by many traditions, is here a Christ figure, with arms outstretched in the manner of the crucifixion. Depending on your beliefs and heritage, you might prefer to associate it with the dying savior archetype, or just the concept of sacrifice in general. Regardless, the dove is being blown apart–if you look closely you can see what looks like fire or blood streaming from his body–yet he holds his position while the lightning force is directed into him. Shock waves ripple through the upper atmosphere.
One lightning bolt is stopped by the bird’s flesh, while the other two cross each other on their way into the lower sky, where they connect with two red robed figures on pedestals. My husband took them for monks of some sort, and perhaps they are, but they are of a twisted and bitter variety. Red is a symbol for blood, and these figures are covered in it. They both contain a stripe of yellow down the center of their bodies which mirrors the lightning itself. The same energy is also disseminated throughout the surrounding air. Yellow is the color of aggression in this particular painting. In contrast, the purplish clouds seem related to the umbilical cord, as if life was floating free from its source. That’s a source for hope, I think.
At this point I find it impossible to judge whether the lightning strikes are feeding the red figures with the energy of the raincloud or whether the rage of the red figures is feeding the ominous storm. It’s probably both.
The two red figures face each other at a distance, proudly erect, while a third figure lies between them, bowed and sliding down the face of a cliff. This shape didn’t have a face and hands until paint was removed by mistake during an accident in varnishing. I left it that way because to me, it now looks rather like Mother Mary or some facet of the grieving mother archetype. Can you see her hands raised to her face in weeping? I see this mother as wounded and dying, her body pierced by aggression that lies like yellow arrows embedded in her bloodied body (thus the red and yellow on her front side). Does she protect the body of a child there as well?
Below this battle, there lies a group of peach colored folk who appear to be observing the scene, almost like tourists. The first two on the left appear to be running, followed by a man wearing a cloak that billows in the wind, and a well dressed lady, standing with two children behind her. I wonder how they understand the situation above them… are they being compromised? I think they are. Take a look at the blood on the man’s heel. I don’t know if it is his own or that of another. All of these folks have the yellow fog of aggression about their eyes. To me, they represent the civilized and comfortable of the world, who, whether they acknowledge it or not, will be impacted by the slaughter of others and the shattering death of peace itself. The resulting cataclysm is as deadly as a sun gone supernova. I belong to this tribe and you probably do, too. How do we stand against the injustice around us?
Humankind’s aggression threatens reality and the continuation of life itself. The sacrifice of life represented by the dying savior and lived out by children, men and women everyday is required not to appease some wrath of God, but because human beings will it to be so.
As always, I invite you to tell me what you see. We don’t always understand the visions we are given and we certainly can’t control what they mean to others.