“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Joan Didion wrote that, it’s the first line in the The White Album. I admire Didion’s writing, her spare prose, permeated with insight in the guise of simple introspection. I hope someday to write something as clean and acute as she. But, neither is my way so I will weave my way through this story.
Dinner and a Swat Team
On the other side of our small town that lies in the foot hills of the Sierra Madre, a four-year-old girl is having nightmares, she dreams of armed and masked men. She has begun to wet the bed. She is afraid in the daylight, afraid of shadows, she is afraid to be alone. Her father comes to my house and beckons to our houseguest, a practitioner of Santeria*, to come heal her. He visits the girl in the morning before he and Felipe go off to work; he leaves before daylight, before coffee. Three days into the girl’s treatment I am told her tale.
One week before a trip to the US to renew my Visa, Felipe and I were enjoying dinner. It was a special meal, we had wine, and we got out the fancy glasses. We try to have a few nice meals together before I travel. Suddenly, so suddenly the dogs didn’t even have a chance to erupt into the usual cacophony, our patio filled with soldiers bearing arms, some of them wearing facemasks, snipers. They wear masks because as executioners they don’t want their identity known. Our reaction was, and here is the shocking part, casual. Felipe and I looked at each other, shook our heads and laughed at little.
The captain emerged and asked for Felipe’s papers, he went into the house to retrieve them. I was now sitting in my enramada, a nine by five meter area enclosed by six-foot high chain-link fencing with approximately 15 armed men and exactly 2 snipers. I smiled at them. It was a genuine smile. It seemed like a good idea to be congenial with a sniper. One of them was wearing glasses, I thought how odd, a sharpshooter with corrective lenses. Felipe emerged with his papers, as the soldiers searched our garden. I pondered whether the garden search was prompted by information that the last time the military had visited our land there were two marijuana plants in our garden. Felipe’s Mother asked us to grow it for her, she uses it in her arthritis remedy* and was concerned about growing it in town.
There is a military encampment near us and soldiers tramp through the campo regularly for exercise. They assault the defenseless hillside with their deafening automatic weapons; an incongruent backdrop to our pastoral existence. They conduct routine checks of unusual looking circumstances; like pirated (such as ours) electricity heading out of town. We had a crack factory as a neighbor for a while, which I guess warrants their vigilance. So perhaps our reaction, or lack thereof, was not so dubious. Perhaps.
Maybe our jaded response can be attributed to 10 years of living in questionable neighborhoods in Chicago—10 years of children on the south side being fatally wounded as they jumped rope, or shot thru the windows of their homes while they studied for tomorrow’s science test. Or maybe, as Felipe felt, it’s a powerful response, you cannot enter our world and scare us; it takes more than a ski mask and an assault rifle to disturb our dinner.
For seven days our friend visited the little girl after the soldiers invaded her home. They had entered everyone’s home in our village. They were looking for a kidnapping victim. It must have been someone important; they don’t usually come out in full force for a private citizen. My friend told me the girl had an infirmity called Espanto. It is triggered by fear, and was likely caused by the invasion. The fright causes a part of their spirit to leave their body and the healer must create a safe place in the mind of the wounded to encourage their spirit to return. I asked him how he did it. In simple terms he explained his methods which include, drawing crosses on the person’s body and invocations, massaging the joints of the limbs with enchanted oil, burning candles, and a series of prayers. After a week of receiving this therapy the little girl was sleeping thru the night and has not wet the bed.
I cannot get the disparity of our reactions out of my mind. The girl’s terror seems saner, more whole to me. Yes, we understood the situation and she did not, but is that not an argument for a more extreme response from us? Is there a part of my soul that fled long ago from too many horrors, too many things I could not understand? Has it been gone so long now we no longer notice the void?
In The White Album Didion asserts that “we live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, (i.e. how odd, a sniper wearing glasses) by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” During the years of 1968-1971 such inexplicable events occurred for Didion; the Kennedy assacinations, the massacre at My Lia, the La Bianca murders. She was unable to apply that which she came to know as the “script of the norm”, a collective narrative of reason, thus she “found it necessary to revise the circuitry of [her] mind,” a self-imposed Espanto. She concludes with this irony for our consideration. Paul Fergusson, a perpetrator of one of horrors of the time, won the PEN fiction award while serving life in prison for the murder of Ramon Navarro. After winning the award, Fergusson announced his intention to continue his writing because, “It had helped [him] to reflect on experience and see what it means.”
Didion’s own sentiment, the last line in The White Album, “Writing has not yet helped me to see what it means,” is one I share.
*Santería is a system of beliefs that merges the Yoruba religion (which was brought to the New World by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations) with Roman Catholic and Native Indian traditions. Santería does not use a central creed for its religious practices; it is understood in terms of its rituals and ceremonies. When I asked my friend what he thought of this definition he raised his eyebrow and told me he did not know how he had come by his knowledge. It was all a gift from his saint, Santo De Muerte.
© 2013 Abby Smith, Writer