Monday, February 8, 2016

The scared and the scarred

This is an excerpt from my novel of Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet." In this section I grapple with lies, discomfort, and resolution, not necessarily in that order. It's kind of sad. 


The scared and the scarred

It's past midnight. I don't want to look at the screen and I don't want to write nonsense but there are a few things I want to communicate. From my open window I can hear the Indian Ocean pounding the shore half a mile away. Near that shore is a Hindu kovil that was built on sand and now lies at a permanent tilt. The tsunami nearly toppled it. The sound of the ocean is gorgeous. Its onetime destruction is unimaginable. Outside my room insects and frogs sing in high pitched disharmony. I woke up thinking it was a leaking pipe. The only sound I can think of that approximates their sound is a radiator with a loose valve. We had that in our house in Cambridge, on Fairmont Street. The bathroom was always warm and steamy thanks to that leak but the rest of the house was cold. Hearing these bugs and frogs reminds me of that sound. But the sound of the ocean in the distance is incomparable. 

At home there's a blizzard raging. What a piece of news! And this week is the first time I miss home or even think about it. Mostly I think of my kids, grownups, and how they must be dealing with this weather. It makes me kind of sad not to be near them, even though they're too old for me to be with them. It surprises me that these leaky sounding bugs, that ocean, and thoughts of the blizzard shaking the walls of my kids' distant houses keeps me up and curious. 

I know when I'm home people will ask, "How was Sri Lanka?" and I'll have fifteen seconds to answer, before they go on to talk about whatever is current and they think is important. I'd rather skip the discussion in that case because how was Sri Lanka is a little too big, even for a whole minute. 

So I feel like as troubling as it is to write, and as boring as the "discipline" of writing feels to me, this, right here, is my only chance to communicate. 

I've had a sore on my foot, the outer part of my right foot, that I got from walking around for miles in wet sandals in Dehiattkandia. When the scab was well formed I rubbed against something and it came off and the secondary injury has been taking its time to heal. It's painful, a bit of a surprise, but it's not red. There is strange swelling and an unusual tissue reaction, a fat ring of ghostly white skin that I suppose is being sloughed off as part of the healing. I don't like it and I hope it's not some buggy thing I picked up in Dehiattkandia, which was once a jungle, and which is still very watery and warm and barely "tamed." There's a young doctor here and other people too have warned me that these kinds of things can get complicated "in the tropics." That's the last thing I want. I've been staying off the foot because even with a bandaid (they call it a "plaster" here) the spot rubs against my flipflop. I'm OK with staying off my feet. I prefer it that way. But I like to move. Riding a bike is out because the spot scrapes with every stroke of the pedal. I can't go in the pool because I want this thing to mostly stay dry and not compromise the tissue any more. I keep the bandaid off when I'm not walking to or from the main building where the wifi is. 

I'm only bothering with all this to say that I woke up sweaty after a dream that I'd like to think was a resolution of this problem. I was still in some pain when I woke up. But I dreamed that a for-profit doctor wanted to see me. This was in Westchester County where my father in law lives, the last grandparent standing. The dream is happening in a clinic or hospital lobby and I'm holding my papers to be seen. Instead of diplomas or travel posters or flower pictures on the wall there are discrete plaques that advertise Heritage Hills, where he and my mother in law lived until she passed away last June. He walks in to the lobby and tells me it's best for me to not see this doctor. Then in come my friends Victor and Judy and Judy looks at the papers. She snorts when she sees that the "doctor" I'm supposed to see is one of her former interns, a greedy guy who focused mostly on his greed and his stupid toys. He asked her to write him a reference for the Harvard Business School. Twice. And when that didn't work he asked her to write more and better letters to more (and better? Less prestigious) schools. Finally he came to grips with the fact that these places weren't in his immediate future for an MBA and he went on to collect cars or whatever. But with my father in law's admonition and Judy's snort I woke up (still dreaming) and took a look at my foot to see the skin had sloughed off nicely and the injury had been resolved. 

Not so easily resolved the communal injury in Sri Lanka. A driver who we hired for a couple of weeks, one from the "other side" (Medawachchiya now living in Gampaha) came by last night on the seventh or eighth day of a trip with a German couple. That they remind him of me says something about the way I see Sinhalese and Tamils and Muslims for that matter as one in the same here in Sri Lanka. They are short, fat, dour, bad-humored, stingy, hard of hearing, aloof and imperious. Not the Sri Lankans. The Germans. Hm. Maybe that's me in a nutshell. 

Susil and I were happy to see one another. He was vastly uncomfortable. I took him for a short walk around here to show him the gardens, the ginger cultivation, okra (ladies' fingers), tomatoes, and the breathtaking walk along the lagoon. I asked him to join me for a beer and he responded, "Let's wait for them. They like to have a beer with me every evening." This evening I guess they forgot as they sat at their laptops and madly swatted at mosquitoes, frowning and complaining loudly the whole time. 

It gave Susil a moment, and I hope we may have more, to spill out his feelings about this place, where he was stationed during the war. Doesn't matter what was truth or not, only that he spoke or rather spilled his gut, hushed, nervous, emotional for fifteen or twenty minutes. Not the composed gent I'm used to seeing at our Mt. Lavinia guesthouse or behind the wheel. And he doesn't feel like it, the conflict, is over. Far far from over. And he knew of Sinha-le, the "Lions Blood" slogan and bumper sticker and he knows it's not a "symbol of the nation," which unfortunately some much more sophisticated, more proficient in written English "nationalists" insist it is. Susil told me simply. "We have the national flag for that symbol." And he reported that he's talked to his teenage children about this. Because it's his children who will have the burden of war or no war and he feels that people behind this sullen symbol are people who don't know the experience of war. I don't know the circumstances but Susil left the military before he could collect his pension. He's a good person but not a very happy person and he's been deeply scarred. 

So I'm walking around in a scarred society. Maybe in some ways a society like his clients Werner and Angela were born into. A society afraid of its own crimes. There is almost no one I've met who isn't scared. Some are running scared. Some are hiding scared. Some are arming themselves scared. And the most shameful ones, the ones I've met most of, are the lying scared. I want to talk about them. It's not them, but their behaviors that are despicable. But I'll take a break now and consider. Sometimes this narrative sounds better as fiction. Angrier. Funnier. Less coherent. Kind of like this place I'm in. 

Friends asked me the other day if my recent experiences in Sri Lanka and the way I'm reflecting on them would influence my future travel to this place. They obviously still haven't had their fill of it. For me I feel the issue, like my scar tissue, has been resolved. 

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