Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What it's like

My husband had to euthanize a cheetah last week. Thankfully that’s not something most people will ever have to say, because he came home quiet and sad that evening. The big cat had been such a sweet animal, he said, and later, when we shifted the subject to current events, he had this to say: most people have no idea what it’s like to take a life, how devastated you feel, how it changes you.

I don’t write much that’s political on this blog, or at least not overtly so, since I do believe that everything is political, everything a stance, even if implicitly. I could easily be accused of supporting the status quo by avoiding social issues and instead writing about the latest thing our macaws have destroyed or the last marathon I ran that changed nothing for anyone anywhere. Well, I’m still not going to tackle any hot-button issues outright in this post, even though you can read into my words whatever you choose, whichever side you believe I support. I merely want to say, though there is nothing “mere” about it, that my husband’s experience made me think about recent events and issues in a way I haven’t seen addressed much at all, and that’s always worth considering.

Laurie Colwin wrote an essay about what it was like the first time she killed one of the chickens on her family farm. She described the horror of it, the thrashing body, the spurting blood. She did not become a vegetarian because of it, nor was her essay a stance one way or another on the practice of eating meat. Instead she suggested that everyone should have or at least imagine having this kind of experience, so that they know exactly what it means to kill something for food—since eating always necessitates killing. I admire my vegetarian and vegan friends, even though I’m not quite there myself, because many of them have thought this through and decided that if they couldn’t deal with such an experience, they had no business expecting anyone else to deal with it on their behalf. Regardless of our dietary preferences, it would be a difficult thing for most of us to take a life—and it should be. 

Yes, I realize there is a world of difference between a sweet, innocent animal and someone who opens fire in a school. A great many people would be repelled by the idea of killing the former, even to end its suffering, but demand the death of the latter—would want to cause that death themselves, would accuse of cowardice anyone who didn’t. I’m not interested in a debate about anything; I’m just thinking about what my husband said. It’s easy to talk about what you would do, and for some it might even be easy to do it should the situation present itself. It’s a lot harder to understand what that experience might really be like.

Last year a young woman in the town where I work was kidnapped and brutally murdered. I didn’t know the woman, or the man who killed her, but like nearly everyone I know here, when they caught him, I wanted him dead. Would I volunteer to be his executioner should he be found guilty? No. Something inside me automatically recoils at the idea. But if she had been my sister, my daughter, my best friend? Then yes, I’m willing to bet I would gladly pull the trigger or the switch or choke him with my bare hands. Blood lust is a seductive thing; those who have it frequently believe they are on the side of the angels. But this is not a simplistic ethical issue along the lines of “is it right to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family.” I’m talking about lives, not loaves. Even if we give it different names, be it murder or justice, an action that is deeply repellent in one situation and deeply desired in another is not one to be taken lightly.

Again, you can read into these words whatever you choose, since that’s pretty much what we do with words. And that’s fine—heck, I’m just glad someone’s reading at all—though I’m not trying to persuade anyone of anything. This is not about a stance or a side but an experience, one I hope I never have to go through but still feel compelled to think about, in my time here as a living thing.

Friday, February 16, 2018

How bittersweet the sound

I’ve been immersed in a big writing project, and as a result the blog has been neglected of late. It’s a good sort of neglect, like when you get a new book by your favorite author and you let the dishes pile up in the sink all weekend. That said, some thoughts came to me last night when I should have been sleeping—how about that, there’s an upside to insomnia—so I figured I would return to blogging for a moment.

I’m going to be 50 at the end of the calendar year, and so far in the month and a half since my last birthday, my body has done its best to remind me of this unsettling fact. Hot flashes during a cold winter can be really fun, almost like a game: how fast can I get a hat, scarf, and coat off and then, two minutes later when I’m suddenly freezing, get them back on again? There’s been other stuff, too. I’ve fallen twice during running, once during the Disney marathon, bruising both knees, and the second time last weekend during a trail run. The Disney fall, which I’m going to call it forever because it amuses me, hurt like hell; the trail run fall initially did not hurt much at all because I landed on a pile of soft, wet, mulch-like twigs. I landed hard enough, however, to get the wind knocked out of me, always an interesting experience—that sickening feeling and “oof” sound, as my running buddy put it, as the oxygen bursts out of your lungs. Days later, my ribs hurt. I’m a side sleeper. Bad enough my brain won’t shut the hell up at night, worse that I feel like I’m wearing a whalebone corset six sizes too small when I toss and turn in bed.

Whatever. I’m an aging klutz with a balance problem and small feet; I fall down a lot. In the words of that weird, slightly irritating but impossible-not-to-sing-along-to song, I get knocked down but I get up again. When the word “graceful” is applied to the young, it is most often used as an antonym to “clumsy.” Olympic figure skaters are deemed graceful when their movements appear light and fluid—and when they don’t fall. Of course, these young people are incredibly strong athletes, and grace is also about being purposeful and controlled in your actions without calling attention to that fact. In short, they are graceful when their bodies do what they want them to. That definition changes with time, when your body is less willing and able to do what you want it to. I think for everyone, grace changes from not falling down to something else: getting back up as if nothing much has happened, even though it has happened, and may keep happening, because you’re not getting any younger and life isn’t getting any easier but look, the fall wasn’t permanent, you got up, you’re still alive, so onward then, right?

Right. Onward, all bruised knees and cracked ribs and clumsy, aging grace.