When I was a kid I tended to take things quite literally -- I guess most kids do.My mother told me that a young girl we knew had broken her leg; my mind took off on a gruesome voyage to her hospital bed, where I was convinced her leg looked like a fat salami which had been sheared in half. I could count the speckles, globules of fat and spices in that salami, and for a very long time, I was afraid of cold cuts. Seriously.
Then, much later, I read in the bible that Moses had to hold his arms up whenever the Israelites, led by Joshua, clashed with another group in war. If he did this, Joshua's army would win, but if his arms faltered, if he tired, they'd lose.
Somehow, that particular image got stuck in my brain. Sometimes I am riding in the passenger seat of a car, and I find myself mentally attempting to brake just a second or two ahead of the driver. See, if I don't do this, we'll crash.
Whether voluntary, or not, I always feel that so long as I root for the underdog, pray for the unfortunate, stay tuned to disasters, it'll prove I care, that I am not selfishly absorbed in my own corner of the world. Maybe, because I am watching, praying and rooting for a better outcome, things won't be so bad.
I was tuned to the TV early in the morning EST when the tsunami struck Japan. Actually, it gathered momentum before striking, then came rolling in with an inexorable finality. I was sitting on the couch and I literally lifted both my legs and pushed my heels against a wall of air, pushing and pushing vainly again, desperate to stop its advance. And then the enormity of what I was witnessing and the incredulity of it brought my struggles to a halt. I just sat there, staring, captivated, infused with adrenaline that was both horrible and exciting.
These kinds of calamities seem to occur in slow motion. Almost as though seconds stretch themselves into hour-long minutes. It was the same thing when I saw the Twin Towers collapsing one floor onto the next.
At any rate, when I witness horrible events live, I become involved in the anxiety and human drama. I tell myself I can't look away, can't stop wondering and caring about pelicans mired in oil, people fleeing water and nuclear contamination.
If I tune these things out, this will mean I am heartless, selfish, cold.
But just how many ways can you spell guilt?
It's no damn good. Unless I am sending a hefty cheque to the International Red Cross or running a country, or working with Doctors without Borders, or volunteering to distribute food, or applying for my own personal seat on the UN Security Council, it's no damn good.
While on one hand, the world's great calamities provide fodder for the creative writer -- and don't kid yourself, they do -- they also suck you dry.
I've never been successful at compartmentalizing my life -- probably my biggest failing. Have a husband, have a lover, have a sick child, go to work anyhow, be like Rose Kennedy and smile when your kids get killed, never go to bed angry because arguments are one thing, and sleep is another...So not me.
More's the pity, I think.
And, so, we arrive at the state I refer to as the clenched mind. Now, the clenched mind is no good to anyone -- you may as well have a stroke and get it over with. You certainly can't write with a clenched mind because any and all creative ideas become petrified in stone, moribund, as cold and dead as Charlton Heston's hands.
Normally I am an anxious person. And, to varying degrees, I want to control events in my personal life. As an infant, I was a placid thing, but I think someone dropped me on my head and after that, all bets were off.
So when I find myself following the news of myriad disasters -- and in all fairness, I didn't pay one moment's notice to OJ Simpson and his trial -- I am talking major disasters here -- I do get embroiled. As a former news person, I understand it. As a novelist, I have to sidestep it. I have to avoid the clenched mind.
What this really means is nobody is going to kill me because I want to write a story. Nobody is going to put my heels to the fire because I need to turn my back on the world's disasters for a few hours every day. I have something vital to do. I have to write a book. And even though my own brethren died by the millions in gas chambers while others danced to the strains of Glenn Miller and his orchestra, it doesn't mean those happy people were guilty of murder. Okay, so maybe some were...
Still...it all boils down to useless guilt, a misguided sense of trying to fend off impending doom, and most abhorrent of all, the clenched mind.
People who train themselves to parcel up their hours into units of thinking, working, and feeling are not evil and cold-hearted. They are wise. They know that disasters inevitably end and life goes on. Artists, in particular, need to be "selfish" because if they weren't, there would be nothing of comfort and grace left to enjoy once nature's wrath recedes.
I don't think it's any coincidence that in learning to train the mind that way, one also acquires the ability to focus completely. In my case, the act of putting aside exterior intrusions means I've given my mind permission to play. It means I can concentrate. It means I am able to create without guilt because I have unclenched my mind.
Susan Hayward said, "I'll cry tomorrow." Scarlett O'Hara said, "I'll think about that tomorrow." And I am saying, "let the games begin."