Last Saturday afternoon I sat on a blanket in Prospect Park with friends, not three blocks from my little Brooklyn apartment. We ate homemade bread with jam, noodles with peanut sauce, and a big salad with basil vinaigrette. There was wine and for dessert, a cake made with blackberries and plums. It was the fourth of July and the park was packed. The sun was shining and it smelled of smoke from the grills laden with burgers and hotdogs. A group of twenty-somethings played guitars nearby.
Before we began to eat, we lifted our plastic glasses and said cheers. We said cheers to Independence Day, and we said cheers to Matt, who was probably already asleep in Afghanistan.
Earlier that day he had written me an email. In it he said:
don't you find it ironic that soldiers at war are probably the americans most aware of the poignancy and significance of independence day, yet they are the only ones who don't really get to "celebrate" it? i thought about that all day. hundreds of millions of americans eating burgers and swimming and lighting sparklers. and here in our region today we lost one american killed in action and five wounded. it won't even make the news.
I ate and I drank and I felt guilty. I know that’s not what Matt intended. But I felt it all the same. And then I felt angry.
Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of emotions that I don’t want, emotions that I know Matt doesn’t want, and that my friends and family perhaps don’t understand. I feel guilty often. I feel angry a lot.
The anger doesn’t come because Matt left. He had no choice. This situation is entirely out his control. It’s out of my control. Sometimes I think it’s even out of our government’s control. I don’t feel angry because I’m alone. I’ve been alone before and I like to think that I’m independent enough to handle it. Perhaps I’m angry because this war is happening at all. I’ve long felt opposed to the action in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I know myself, and I know I’m not the type to feel such consuming anger about something general, about something as large as a country or as a war. I can feel disappointed and depressed, yes. But I think I’m angry because I’m afraid. Someone I love is somewhere quite dangerous, and I’m very afraid.
This evening I took the subway home from Manhattan. I was reading a book by Diane Ackerman called “An Alchemy of Mind,” which is about the magic and the mystery of the human brain. She has a chapter dedicated to emotion and how our feelings have developed throughout evolution. She writes:
We evolved to feel anger in familiar arenas, where we could act to make changes and defend ourselves. What we didn’t evolve resources for was long-distance anger, fury at potential danger half a world away, and at a level of such complexity and sheer size one can’t resolve it single-handedly or even with the help of one’s kin. We can feel the requisite anger, we just can’t discharge it in useful ways. It’s both our privilege and peril to have the brain our hunter-gatherer-scavenger ancestors did, one suited to their equally emotional but simpler world.
I hardly noticed as my train passed over the sunlit Manhattan Bridge. I almost forgot to get off at the 7th Avenue stop. I like the idea that I can blame my anger, which feels both helpless and useless, on evolution. My brain just isn’t made to feel this terror for a danger that resides half a world away. I’m not programmed to think of such opaque realities, of such theoretical monstrosities.
Instead I sit in the park and think of how much I hate the way my fork sounds as it scrapes against the plastic of my plate. I think about the way my sandal is rubbing against my heel and how it hurts and how that makes me seethe. I think of my credit card bill and, oh man, I’m furious.
Sometimes I have to remember to breathe.
And I have to remember to be aware. I need to be aware of my anger, and of my fear. I don’t often know where these feelings come from, but I am prepared to look them in the eye and deal with their presence. I will take it one day at a time, and I will think about Matt, who doesn’t have the distraction of holidays and picnics to shield him from unwanted emotion. And I will think about my friends, who feed me cake and keep me busy and watch fireworks on the street in front of my apartment after the sun goes down.