I want you to understand. First, the smell: dust. Second, the sounds: men’s voices, truck tires on gravel, and the metal click of a revolver. The hiss and pop of a beer can opening and the slow rhythm of old country music. I want you to understand that there is no such thing as good and bad. Hold this solider in one hand, my Afghani neighbor in the other. Now hold protection in your chest. See where it lies. Bring honor to your heart. Taste it. Brother is deploying in two days to Afghanistan and we talk around it, swallowing the discomforts, belching out the ugliness. Third, the sight: Milky Way. Fire. Darkness made of velvet. Black Velvet, a gallon of it sitting on a wood table. Fourth, the taste: the grime and soot that fills my mouth when Brother speaks. They are going to ask me to blow the sand into glass.
Brother says, “Do you know what some soldiers in the US military call Afghanis? Monkeys.”
Fifth, the sensation: falling. Decimation. His words are bombs and I feel them shatter my hope. It is not enough to simply say that my stomach falls out of me. It is the sensation of marrow emptying from my bones. I am all hallowed out and blank. All pale and unoccupied, like my heart packed up and went to find a new home. My soul watches wistfully, wishing it could pack up, too.
I think of my neighbor, Salah, and his wife looking out their trailer door to wave hello. My friend Abed from Jordan, who is really from Palestine, and his brother Anas who created a circus for refugee kids, like himself. Four. Four people I can count that I know are not monkeys. There are mixed numbers on how many civilians have been killed since our invasion of the Middle East in 2001, but generally we report 21,000. I know none of them were monkeys. I am still at the table, surrounded by other white men, listening to Brother.
He is folding his t-shirts and in their neat folds I can only see the RM of ARMY across the chest. When his duffels are full we use them as punching bags and take turns holding and hitting. After our knuckles have bruised and small scrapes appear from the burlap, we take turns hoping divinity will come from a brown bottle. We hope it will carry some of the grief.
Remember, this is no such thing as good and bad. There is evil. And extraordinary beauty. And between those poles, there is endless expression, intangible and impossible to sort.
Brother will be sent to Afghanistan tomorrow. He joined the Army after college and entered as an officer. After months of basic National Guard, and our assumption that the war was ending, he received orders for deployment. Tonight, around the table at the Ranch, we pass around the ring he bought for his girlfriend and make suggestions for his proposal. The diamond is square, the band white gold, and his plan unset. He has not asked her father’s permission, but knows he has to. They have not had sex; she is nineteen and devoutly Christian.
“So, you’re going to propose and then leave?” we ask.
“Yeah.” Sheepish. Shy. A little ashamed and very nervous, “I hope she still says, yes.”
Have you seen a veteran’s eyes? They look very similar to Abed’s. Tortured. Confused. Still, somehow, full of their humanity. Please do not change, my inner voice shouts. Please do not become a story I write. But isn’t it too late for that? We are drunk and not so young anymore and we shake out all the ugly, scatter it across the room, hate each other for it, and still love each other in spite of it. It is Wyoming in the wintertime and the days are short and the nights are black holes, and we get lost in the blanket darkness.
Again, Brother says, “We will bomb that sand into glass.” As if he can’t believe it either, as if he needs to say it to make it okay, as if he needs to prove to us he is still innocent, or that he has no choice. He prays, prematurely, for forgiveness. Sip. Drink.
Blow out the smoke in your mouth. And when we do, when we blow the sand into glass, what will we do with the shards? Will they melt again? Will we make vases and windows from them, and your grandmother will fill the vase with flowers and look out from the panes?
What do you call someone who kills people? What do you call someone who does it for love of country? Soldier cannot be the right word for a love that will kill. Isn’t that what makes a mother?
Remember there is no such thing as good and bad. Is it evil? Is it beauty?
Words are weapons, too. It’s cliché and I’m tired of being told the pen is a sword, but it is real when defining war, military, and love. You can call a soldier a hero or a murderer. You can call them a warrior or a monster. You can call them savior or Satan. You could call them Brother. Maybe even mother.
So let’s go back to before this dark night, to before we drank whiskey, and smoked cigarettes, to before we understood war because we were lucky to be born in the ‘90s, in the sweet spot of being too young to understand what was happening in the world, and to being privileged enough to not have to. We had a swimming hole that was gathering point in the summers. It was down a dirt road, and one of us edged along the boundaries of a stranger’s property through bushes and tall grass, and found a spot we could sneak to where a rusted truck lined the riverbed, and the adults would not be able to find us.
We hung a rope from the perfect oak branch that grew over the river and we swung far out, far past the snake grass and river rocks, the boundaries of man, and into the middle of air. The water so cold we couldn’t breathe, gasping for life as we surfaced. It was all very idyllic, and white, and safe, and not safe, and none of this is really the point. The point is that Brother isn’t really anyone’s brother but became one through time and shared history. Family was something we chose. The point is that we grew up with no terror of land mines, with no worry of being on someone else’s property, with no concern for tanks and absent woods, and with the ability of water to hide us. We did not grow up in fear. We knew beauty long before we knew evil.
There is no such thing as good and bad. There is evil. And extraordinary beauty. And between those poles, there is endless expression, intangible and impossible to sort.
I am not trying to decriminalize war or bombs or machine guns. I am writing because I still love the man sitting across the kitchen table from me. The man who is about to step into a Humvee with the anticipation of death riding shotgun. The same man who will, most likely, kill civilians. And I do not know how a human heart can be so big.
What kind of answers fit the kinds of questions whose complexity mirrors the galaxy we are sobbing under? Some mornings I beg for good. I beg for it to walk into my life and be simple and easy and measurable.
It is messy. All of it. Sticky and unkind and confusing. There are missed deadlines and screaming matches and the broken sound of poor decisions. There is ill timing and discomfort. And there is poetry. Unbelievably, and undeniably, there is poetry. The kind that does not come all at once, but gradually empties from your mouth, like losing teeth. You shake the teeth around in a wooden box and finally you have a full set that you begin arranging and it is strange and you do not tell anyone until the day you walk out of your life and begin something new, because you want to make sense of this empty-mouthed pain.
Remember there is no such thing as good and bad. What are we supposed to do about that? What should I do about this Humvee sized hole in my chest?
I live in West Oakland, in a doublewide trailer with a gas oven, bent forks and a lemon tree in the brave back yard. The sky is orange-vanilla colored in the early mornings when I creak open our barred fence for the 4 a.m. start to my baking job. Quiet does not exist in our neighborhood and when I get home in the early afternoons there is often the thunkthudchatterteasing of the boys playing basketball next door. The father, Salah, is Afghani. The wife, nameless, waves from the doorframe, protected in her burka. On our first interaction, through the chain link that separates our cement yards he says, “You are good neighbor. So happy to have good neighbor.”
Again my marrow empties. I do not deserve this kindness. I do not deserve his friendship, when Brother is in his country, strategically placing drones. So many wars wage inside; I am surprised my skin manages to maintain its grip on my bones.
“Are my kids too loud? Is the basketball loud? You are very good neighbors.”
And the gate creaks open after work, “Hello young lady! Everything okay?”
I think often of the importance of place and how it defines our lives. I grew up in Wyoming surrounded by white men. When I moved to Oakland I did not choose my neighborhood, rather it chose me through pricing and location. I could not afford to live in a different neighborhood; I could not afford a “real” house, only a trailer. I would rather play it cool than admit I was afraid when I first moved there. I was surrounded by people I had never met. What I mean is that I was surrounded by people of color, all different colors, and I have been subtly taught to fear this. I don’t need to say that of course I was fine, and of course my neighbors are kind, and of course they aren’t all gang members. But it also does need to be said. We tell too many other stories. It also needs to be said that I miss Brother and he missed my wedding and I don’t know if I would want him to visit my neighborhood. With his crew cut and strut.
Would Brother have so willingly joined the military if his neighbors had been Afghani? Can we blame the white men we grew up with? Can we blame the lack of diversity, the insufficient geography classes, the scarcity of color, the inadequate education of US politics, the absence of truth in our history classes? The segregation that continues in the Midwest, in Wyoming, in my hometown? Can we blame the principal who in fourth grade came into our classroom to hold up a picture of Al Gore and said, “Hey kids, want to see a picture of the Devil?”
Easier to blame those systems than the ones that we quiet ourselves. They are to blame, but so are we with our muting and silencing and hushing. The systems inside that we shut up and shut down and stop standing up for each other. Easier to blame those outside faults than our own nervous systems that we desensitize to horror. Easier to sit in the sand that walk on glass shards.
It is not enough to merely bow in apology and pray for forgiveness. Protection is a sticky stone in by belly. I know where it rages and I do not call the head of this monster ugly. It is necessary. Beautiful, even, in its honor. My mother did not know the rage of murder in her blood until my older sister was born. It was then, she told me once, she understood what it would be like to kill someone to protect your love. It was then, she said, tiny wooden soldiers lined up in her chest, ready with their bayonets, their tiny fists, their sharp teeth. Love so large, it will kill to keep it. Love so large we kill to protect it. Love so large we shake it around in our bodies until we shake it out into the bodies of others.
Can evil come from love, too?
Brother bends his back, kneels, elbows on his bed.
I do not know how Salah prays.
I do know that we all want to protect what we love. I do know that what we love is sticky, messy, confusing, and gritty. I do know that our human hearts have more room for difference than we are told to believe. I do not know what to do about the US military and its insistence on destruction. I know the appeal for young men and women to become soldiers. I know people who didn’t have another choice. None of this makes any of it right.
There is still so much evil that exists. There is still so much beauty that exists.
I do know that Brother reads poetry in his Humvee. I do know that I see him, his heart beating, sitting quietly on the shores of the Atlantic, his feet stretched out in front, back bent over as he watches slowly, inevitably, the sand that pours through his hands.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.