Tuesday, September 11, 2007

unrecoverable

Well, Swee'pea is adjusting -- slowly -- to his new daycare centre. They assure me at the centre that his behaviour is totally normal, and that he will eventually adjust. But I can't help feeling like that "adjustment" is just crushing his spirit, forcing him to lower his expectations of the world, that when he stops crying he will just be giving up hope. It feels wrong.

His crying when I drop him off (and my crying on the way to work) casts a shadow over my day that pulls my shoulders and spirits down all day, until I can pick him up, and he cries again, but only briefly, and we go home where he eats and eats and eats the food he's used to.

Last night, I had a bubble bath and read more of Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War. The latest story sees the author in Romania in 1990, shortly after Ceausescu died. She and her latest lover, a young Romanian photographer who can't speak English so they speak French together, go looking for one of the country's orphanages, which her lover calls Les hopitaux des irrecuperables, or hospitals for unrecoverables.

Sometimes motherhood makes me so sensitive, raw and exposed, to the world's tragedies, especially those befalling other people's children. This book has already brought me to tears once, and the part I read last night made me weep. Hard. Between the haunting photographs of the mostly naked and emaciated children in an institution so cold it doesn't even have mattresses on the beds (they were destroyed by constant bed-wetting and never replaced), and the mental images her words evoked, and the little girl who kept calling her Mama and, finally held close, bit her breast, I had no chance. To think that people charged with caring for children could be so inhumane nearly stops my heart. I know, intellectually, that the institution I have entrusted Swee'pea's care to is nothing like the ignored and impoverished institution described in Shutterbabe; there is no comparison really. Nevertheless, it feels like there could be, but for the grace of God...

If pictures can speak a thousand words, why do we keep writing?

"Call it the curse of the photographer. [...] most of the memories I have since becoming a photographer are four-sided and flat. When you learn to properly frame an image in the viewfinder of a camera, you start to frame and catalog everything you see, whether you photograph it or not. And suddenly, memory has the shape of a rectangle. The vastness of a forest becomes twelve trees with a rock balancing out the foreground. A person becomes a close-up of the crow's-feet around his eyes. A war becomes red blood in white snow. Sometimes I feel like my brain has become nothing more than an overstuffed spiral notebook full of negatives, printed at will in a disorganized flurry by the tiniest provocation."

At one point she freaks out, and her companion tells her to calm down, that she's "trying to understand something that is incomprehensible," a sure path to madness. It's the first time in her career as a photojournalist where shooting, hiding behind the camera, "seems like the most morally appropriate action to take."

As I read Copaken Kogan's experience at the Romanian orphanage, my tears nearly overfilling the tub, it occurred to me that words expand that flat, rectangular frame and make it three-dimensional and fluid. After Copaken Kogan exits the orphanage, having shot a crude and casual autopsy, she vomits until she dry heaves. She writes, "I look up into the sky, and it's as if I've opened the pages of a pop-up book or put on a pair of cardboard 3-D glasses. First the clouds pop out, then a bird. I see the sun and the way its rays hit the newly formed buds in the trees. I see the separate planes of the orphanage building, I see the horizon receding in proper perspective. Everything that had previously turned flat now has heft, shadow, dimension, depth. I see a broken tricycle. It's the first toy I've seen all day."

Combining words and images communicates experience in a way that neither text nor photography could do as well on its own. This book is devastating in many ways, a joy in others. I can't stop reading it; I'm invested. I must see it through to its conclusion.

17 comments:

kgirl said...

This is so so cheesy, but when Bee cries, I feel like I hear the crying of every child in the world. If Bee pinches her finger, I feel like it represents the suffering of all children, and my heart can't take it.
The book sounds beautiful, but my heart can't take it.

nomotherearth said...

Eventhough we're a year away from the crying when I dropped off the Boy at daycare, I still know exactly how it feels. In fact, I got a taste of it this morning. Heartless and cruel would be the closest description I could give myself. But I know that the Boy loves the daycare and has a great time there! It's just so heartbreaking sometimes when you want to wrap them up in your arms and never let go.

flutter said...

Oh Sin, this is just so. *sigh*

I guess it is the burden of being a mom, no?

Jennifer said...

It is the result of having our hearts opened so vulnerably as mothers, isn't it. It's beautiful. And it's painful. You've captured it very well.


With my own children, I choose to think of their adjustments to new places and new people as gained understanding that there is more good in the world than they had realized. That they don't stop being upset because they give up hope, but because they come to see they can trust their new surroundings. (And yes, I choose to think this way partly for myself -- so my heart doesn't break into 1,000 pieces with every change and new circumstance, but...it helps.)

Suz said...

I think that I would have a hard time reading this book; in fact, I'm pretty sure that I would not be able to get through it. The only reason that I can get through the boys' crying when I leave them is that less than 15 minutes later, I know that I will hear their laughter, through the door.

NotSoSage said...

Wow. Just wow. Your words are the equal of your photographs. And that's saying something.

Mad Hatter said...

My husband wrote a play not that long ago that dealt with Ceausescu's orphans. It is too much to bear.

When I was pregnant with Miss M there was a day care hostage taking somewhere in the southeast (an English school in the Philippines?). Anyway, one of the children was killed by the hostage takers because he wouldn't stop crying. At the time the story nearly killed me. It was my first maternal reaction to the news. Reading this post tonight reminded me of that story and its effect on me--except now that I have a daughter who is crippled with shyness and who is also having a tough transition to daycare. I know that she would've been the child who wouldn't be able to stop crying and... the world cannot contain the tears that I want to shed this evening. This first world veneer allows us and our children so much...

jen said...

oh sister. i so know.

i so know. i drive away every single morning wondering what the fracking hell i am doing.

Christine said...

oh you.

you have a heart that is golden and bright with love for swee'pea and the worlds children.

Beck said...

Those poor babies.
But Swee'pea's warm daycare is not the same thing - yes, adjusting will be hard for both of you, but my aunt was just telling me this morning about her daughter who initially wept heartbreakingly whenever it was time to go to daycare and after a couple of months wept heartbreakingly whenever it was time to LEAVE. He'll find his way.

niobe said...

What a wonderful, terrible passage. I'm not really a photographer, but still, I understand what she means about memories and perceptions that are rectangular and flat. I was going to write a post about it, but after reading this, I see that someone's already written it much better than I could have.

Kyla said...

This got me. And then Mad's comment just added to it. It shouldn't happen, it just shouldn't.

slouching mom said...

Oh, God. It's unbearable. I can't even find the words.

Aliki2006 said...

Being a parent can be such a painful burden--sometime I can scarcely think about the suffering children have and will endure. I ache for my own kids--for their tears and for their sadness.

Beautiful post.

deb said...

A thought provoking post. When my girls were each born there were wars on the news at night that broke my heart, watching mothers with injured or dead babies. It was more than I could bear.

And still today, it continues.

Mimi said...

Well, I'm crying now too. I'm raw all the time, too; I have no stomach for the world.

dawn224 said...

Like kgirl said - I remember having the Kaiser out for a walk and him crying because he was too hot, and I was struggling to get us back into the air conditioning and each time I just thought of what do moms do when they can't fix it? when there is no air conditioning - or whatever easy fix.

I can't watch the news anymore. I'm glad I'm not alone - even though I'm sorry we all have this hurt we carry around with us.