One of my roommates, Noa, one of the people I care for most in the world, spent her childhood summers with family in Tel Aviv, Israel. When I hear fireworks, she hears bombs. When I hear lightning storms, she hears explosives. I can never understand what it’s like to grow up where she did. To love a family that remains there, a family both culpable and vulnerable. Still, I know that Noa’s heart is heavy, like mine, at the news of today’s invasion, and for the people killed. They are also family; they are also loved.
Below is an email from someone I don’t know, forwarded by my dear, wonderful friend Henry Mills (Introduction forthcoming). There’s such a feeling in it of familial loss and heartache, mourning the dead and calling the living to action.
I have resisted writing emails like this for so long, emails to tell people what they already know and feel.
I woke up this morning to news from my family about 200 people killed in Gaza overnight in raids, and clashes happening right now in Ramallah.
I could say, these are two hundred people that had lives, lists of places to visit before they die or a plan for a better life, even a TV show they have been wanting to follow till the end, but it doesn’t matter.
All I can think about, are all of those people that are still alive. The millions in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Israel. The millions in America that are sitting in comfortable houses or sleeping on the street, all of us that are witnessing these deaths, but also tracking down our breath and knowing we are alive. My friend Mohammad, who has held me together when other news of massacres in the past two years have bled through my phone, told me today that even the smallest people can do something, can rebuild my broken home or at least learn how to mourn and remember.
But you are not small people, I’m writing to you because you are all really big in love and generosity, and I want to ask you, for me and my people, to do something little today. Write a poem, write to your local newspaper, tell your friends and family to light a candle, research the name of one of the people who was killed last night, or one that was left alive, and keep them with you, make a piece of music, send this email, send any email about whats going on. Do one thing that will ripple through your street, neighborhood, or country, and most importantly, believe that that one little thing will mean something.
I know for most of you these are news items, but this is my home. I have been mad at it for long, and I will continue to be critical and aware, but more importantly, I love it like we all love our messed up families, and the wound that fractures through it hurts me like its in my womb.
Having said that, I hope that you think about it, look in the mirror, and know that this pain is familiar, even if you have never heard gunshots or seen missiles falling.
Last but not least, and for all of those who know about my obsession with James Baldwin, here is a quote I find very important, and relevant today, from a letter James Baldwin wrote to his nephew James
“Well, you were born, here you came, something like fifteen years ago; and though your father and mother and grandmother, looking about the streets through which they were carrying you, staring at the walls into which they brought you, had every reason to be heavyhearted, yet they were not. For there you were, big James, named for me-you were a big baby, I was not-here you were: to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against this loveless world. Remember that: I know how black it looks today, for you. It looked bad that day too, yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived. And now you must survive because we love you, and for the sake of your children and your children’s children”
Lots of love to you all,
Links to the news about Gaza:
As Noa reminded me recently, the notion of the family is a keystone of the nation-state: in order to defend the family, so the logic goes, we must defend the state. But war is not an inevitable conclusion. Even amidst violence, links between the concepts of family and war don’t have to result in ‘in-group/out-group’ bellicosity and murder. In a moving account of his developing Buddhist pacifism and decision to leave the Iraq War as a conscientious objector, Aiden Delgado describes gaining inspiration from a passage in the classic Hindu text, The Mahabharata. In it, a solider appears at the battlefield and surveys the opposing army, only to realize with horror that the faces of the enemy are the faces of his own family. Despairing, he prays to Krishna.
Arjuna said,–‘Beholding these kinsmen, O Krishna, assembled together and eager for the fight, my limbs, become languid, and my mouth becomes dry. My body trembles, and my hair stands on end. Gandiva slips from my hand, and my skin burns. I am unable to stand (any longer); my mind seems to wander. I behold adverse omens, too, O Kesava. I do not desire victory, O Krishna, not sovereignty, nor pleasures. Of what use would sovereignty be to us, O Govinda, or enjoyments, or even life, since they, for whose sake sovereignty, enjoyments, and pleasures are desired by us, are here arrayed for battle ready to give up life and wealth, viz., preceptors, sires, sons and grandsires, maternal uncles, father-in-laws, grandsons, brother-in-laws, and kinsmen. I wish not to slay these though they slay me, O slayer of Madhu, even for the sake of the sovereignty of the three worlds, what then for the sake of (this) earth? What gratification can be ours, O Janardana, by slaying the Dhartarashtras? Even if they be regarded as foes, sin will overtake us if we slay them. Therefore, it behoveth us not to slay the sons of Dhritarashtra who are our own kinsmen.
Now, in detailing the calamities that would befall a society overtaken by sin, Arjun goes on to describe with horror the corruption of women and consequent intermingling of castes. So this ain’t no radical, ‘all god’s children’ kind of parable, to be sure. Still, Delgado related to Arjun’s conflict because the people in Iraq, his ‘enemies,’ seemed so much like himself, so familiar, that he felt no desire to fight them.
Sometimes pacifism masquerades as nobility. As though a pacifist were above killing. Delgado’s story reminded me that, alternately, pacifism can be grounded in the reality of compassionate non-duality, a fundamental lack of clear separation between hero and enemy. It’s the kind of compassion you can’t fully theorize. It takes experience, practice.
Even if you don’t personally support pacifism, you can practice compassion. Do one thing, like Tala asks. Maybe start with your own family, however defined.