Life contains everything: tear gas in Ferguson, books read on the grass, journalist James Foley's murder, dancing in New Orleans till sunrise blots the stars. We're meat—fragile and finite. But joy is survival.
Illustration by the author
It's been a summer of monsters.
Last week, the Islamic State released a video broadcasting the execution of James Foley in Syria.
Foley was a photojournalist. He was a brave, handsome man, who, according to people who knew him, was kind under stress. He was a member of a world I've only dipped into—that of freelancers reporting on war. It's a scene bonded over whiskeys in Gaziantep or Beirut. Because they have scant backup, freelancers look out for their own. This might mean sharing tips on fixers. Or it might mean something beyond the job, like raising money for the kids of a colleague killed in the field.
James Foley was kidnapped two years ago near Aleppo. A foreigner (or well-off Syrian) can net a fortune in ransom. Later, ISIS acquired him. They murdered him on the hills outside Raqqa. The voice on their propaganda tape was from London's East End.
I learned of Foley's death via a Skype message from a Syrian media activist. "Have you seen the video?? James :( May god bless his pure soul." It was 4 AM. I googled, then doubled over in ugly sobs. Behind my eyelids, I saw the orange jumpsuit ISIS forced Foley to wear, echoing Gitmo. How many captives were still locked in their basements? How many Syrians had they murdered? Those names would never trend on Twitter.
I was in Sweden. The country's neat politeness made an obscene contrast to social media, where the stream showed police rampaging in Ferguson, Missouri. A cop had killed a black teenager named Mike Brown. Police would lay siege to the town to protect the man who shot him. Cops gassed an eight-year-old boy, or a woman fleeing in her wheelchair. Despite their sci-fi toys, the police's violence was as old as slavery. With raw courage, Ferguson kept protesting.
Weeks before, New York City police strangled to death a black grandfather named Eric Garner. A week before that, a California cop pummeled Marlene Pinnock, a black great grandmother. Back in New York, police stripped a black mom naked in the hallway outside her apartment, then arrested her entire family. They had knocked on the wrong door. Social media presented a parade of videos showcasing state violence that black people have endured since they were kidnapped to America.
Weeks before officer Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown, Israel invaded Gaza under Operative Protective Edge. They bombed homes, hospitals, mosques, even UN schools where Palestinians were told to shelter. After six weeks, the IDF had killed over 2,000 Gazans, most of them civilians. Palestinians tweeted photos of the devastation. Israel claims to have the "world's most moral army." Those photos showed this to be a lie.
During Gaza or Ferguson, I could not look away. These were events in which I, as a white-skinned woman or an American, was unwillingly complicit. But I wondered about the nature of looking. Was it voyeurism, to watch people attacked each night and do nothing but donate to bail funds? Or was it worse not to look, to retreat because one was able?
Journalism often feels like vampirism. Before Ferguson or Gaza, I'd been reporting from Abu Dhabi, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria. Before that, Guantanamo. Sources told me about repression and violence. A journalist on the disaster beat told me to be a funnel for this pain. "Let it go through you. Get it down truthfully. Move on."
I could not.
Writing about others' trauma bears no relation to living it. Yet I was a ruin more and more. The word "burnout" is dead from overuse. Constant exposure to pain burns in.
Quinn Norton once advised me to write about what I loved. Rage came more easily. I'd make my lines bloody, my words damning. I didn't know how to write about happiness. What did it mean, the night I danced on the street in New Orleans? A brass band howled. I'd woven flowers into my hair, but they dissolved beneath the Halloween rain. My friends and I danced for hours.
It was one night, on one sliver of earth.
We need beauty. But what right did I have, I kept asking myself, in a world so full of hell?
In his poem, "A Brief for the Defense," Jack Gilbert attempted an answer. "We must risk delight," he wrote. Life contains everything. Tear gas in Ferguson. Books read on the grass. Foley's murder. Dancing in New Orleans, till sunrise blots the stars. We're meat—fragile and finite. But joy is survival.
To remind myself, every summer I visit Coney Island. My mother used to visit, as did my grandmother. I love Coney's tattered glamor. I love the animatronic Grandma spitting fortunes, or the monsters Chico airbrushed at The Spook House. I love the dizzy minutes when the Wonder Wheel freezes. I'm above it all. Alone with the sky.
For a hundred years, Coney Island's been a symbol for working class pleasure. But New York lacks space for such darlings. In 1964, Fred Trump (Donald's father) bought Steeplechase, Coney's grandest park. He intended to raze it for apartments. Though he failed to push through the necessary rezoning, he destroyed Steeplechase anyway. On the night before the bulldozers, Trump threw a party.
At the party, bikini models presented bricks to Trump's friends. The moguls hurled the bricks through Steeplechase's stained-glass windows. They must have giggled as the glass broke.
Every year, Coney Island faded. In the early 2000s, Thor Equities bought up much of the boardwalk. They expelled a culture as sparkling as the glass crushed into Times Square's sidewalks.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged Coney Island. No one even repainted the signs.
When my friends and I visited Coney Island this summer, the old parts had shrunk to bones. As we watched the storm come off the water, Coney's lights seemed fainter than ever.
I thought of Fred Trump as he hurled bricks through Steeplechase's windows.
Spaces of joy are always threatened. Blink, and they've been destroyed.
I thought of the gunships blocking Gaza's sea from fishermen, or the Islamic State smashing ancient statues, or the New York cops who would choke a black man to death for little more than being outside in the sun.
I thought of the roses laid in the street where Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown.
Power seeks to enclose beauty—to make it scarce, controlled. There is scant beauty in militarized zones or prisons. But beauty keeps breaking out anyway, like the roses on that Ferguson street.
The world is connected now. Where it breaks, we all break. But it is our world, to love as it burns around us. Jack Gilbert is right. "We must risk delight" in the summer of monsters. Beauty is survival, not distraction. Beauty is a way of fighting. Beauty is a reason to fight.
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