On the Scowl of Katniss Everdeen

HungerGamesMockingJayPt2

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen (Mockingjay Part 2)

Katniss Everdeen. She’s emotionally daft, which might be my favorite detail in the narrative. The kid – and she is so young – honestly doesn’t know what to do with her feelings or the feelings of others. She can track tiny animals through the woods while hunting, but she gets thoroughly befuddled by people feeling stuff. She has basically no clue when she’s feeling a feeling, which leaves her annoyed with all these other people and their messy feelings. Many a young character has brooded Hamlet-like in the middle of beautiful landscapes. Katniss would push Hamlet out of the way to try and kill a bunny with an arrow.

Why is Katniss a terrible student of emotions? There’s simply no time for it in her world. No time at all. Katniss is painfully aware that she walks the knife-edge of survival. Who has time to pause and feel, to read the softness in others’ eyes? All is hard edges underneath.

When pressed to decide which boy she loves or whatever, Katniss’s response is to scowl and feel embarrassed. Hell, when Peeta announces to the nation that he loves her, she reacts by shoving him into a plant. She doesn’t even articulate herself. Can’t say why she’s irritated. Can’t search the source of her own bafflement. If she had the self-awareness to apprehend and describe her feelings, an awareness that she absolutely does not have, she’d say, “I’m sorry, I was so busy fighting starvation for most of my life that I haven’t really thought about all that.”

As it is, she scowls at people and gets kinda rude and assumes they want to manipulate her. Which they do.

Katniss is accustomed to a world that does not bow to her wishes or even her basic needs. That’s the thing in dystopian worlds: the world has nothing left to give. It is neither lush nor welcoming. Katniss is habituated to a universe in which she has to fight to survive, fight to help her sister survive. She does not effortlessly dominate her surroundings or even expect that she will. In this world, tiny success is arrived at with great cost. She doesn’t have the spare energy for smiles. She wants her sister to have them. Her sister, who gets blown up. (Sorry about all that sacrifice, kid.)

The heroics of Katniss Everdeen, in other words, are startling in their realism. It is quite clear, after all, that we are not in control of most of our own lives. We aren’t. It can seem that way, yes, absolutely. I am fully able to make a whole lot of fun little decisions about the various details of the day. But that has a way of concealing just how elusive most of my freedom is, and it conflates deciding something with freely willing something. “Not every act is free,” says Bernard Lonergan. It may seem obvious, what he says, but the phrase closes a long reflection over whether we’re free at all. Because, mostly, we are not.

I’d scowl at that. I’d scowl the hell out of that. I do scowl at that.

It is notable that Katniss is a young woman. In a strange way – whether or not the author intended this – Katniss Everdeen struggles under the weight of grim vulnerability rather than overcoming obstacles with some titanic inner strength. Whether this kind of shuddering danger – also supremely real in all of us in this world – would be acceptable in a man is an open question. What would we think as an audience? Could we tolerate a young man shivering in a dark closet, terrified of the ghosts in his head? Maybe. In a woman, we consent to the image all too easily. I cannot help but think of that.

Katniss is made a national celebrity and the symbol of an entire rebellion. (No pressure, you emotionally stunted, already-traumatized teenager, you.) She accepts the role of “Mockingjay” to encourage the rebels, to try to do something good, and, mostly, to rescue the boy she’s survived horrible things with. She’s dragged this way and that at the behest of higher powers with unspoken plans. The boy is left to suffer, and when he returns he is not himself. Very, very not.

Sometimes good intentions don’t matter.

Katniss, as a symbol, is negotiated like a symbol. Those with power seek to exert their wills through her. Or they straight-up try to execute her. Either way, becoming a symbol diminishes Katniss’s self-possession in part because it externalizes her identity, which makes her negotiable. An object on a chessboard to be assessed and moved.

This is what being made into a symbol does to a human being. At least in the sense of the word as I use it now. Sometimes we say “stereotype” to mean something like it: the person serves a principle or presumption rather than as a self. It is more than mere stereotyping, this negotiating of someone else’s identity through symbols. It is a willing over someone else, a willing in someone else, despite and without that someone else. But first they can’t be someone else. Not if this is going to work. They’ve got to be emptied out into some image or symbol first. Then they are robbed of themselves.

Katniss is robbed of herself in more than one way. Each is a haunting thematic gesture toward the ways we might be killed with symbols: violence (you are not a person but a thing), expectations (you are what I want you to be), love (your desire is mine and not your own). Expectations and love – I will leave violence aside – can be wonderful and good. But they can be flattened into a knife that threatens another into acquiescence. Pressed down into a flat image, a narrowed understanding, a stiff notion.

To do something like that is profoundly different than, say, seeing the significance of a person who shares our humanity or seeing a human being as a sacramental image of God. Those latter kinds of symbols do not view another human being as a vessel for someone else’s power, and they do not understand symbols as separated from the thing symbolized. In other words: if someone is dignified because they are an image of God, that dignity is theirs and it is nonnegotiable. Katniss is important because she’s Katniss.

But these are things that her world, and ours, struggle to grasp. Refuse to grasp.

It does not end well for Katniss Everdeen. At the age of eighteen, she’s been exiled to her home district and declared insane. She’s got burn scars all over her body, severe PTSD, and the sister she gave everything for is dead. Most of her friends are dead, and almost everyone from her hometown is dead. Katniss Everdeen is a broken wreck. And that’s exactly why we should pay attention to her.

No giant success offers her back to herself. No triumph. No inner enlightenment, or outward praise, or miraculous event. Somewhere in the quiet of her exile with that boy who is not himself, she grows. With him. The most interesting part of the story is left a mystery. Somehow that small space of existence lets her find the someone that she is. Someone who can feel and choose and rest. Someone who can be with someone else.

In a dystopian world rather unreal, Katniss Everdeen is strangely – powerfully – realistic.

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Survivor.

Scriptorium de l'abbaye de Vaucelles - Nord -

I am alone. The phrase echoed dully in my head, and I scowled at it as my awareness slowly widened to the soft gray of a foggy bay morning. I dragged a hand over my face, sitting up with my head down. Trying to feel my way into some response to the hour, finding only the silent phrase lonely in my skull. It’s what I should’ve said. I am alone. The answer to a question from yesterday.

But not today.

My therapist calls it “putting yourself together.” He means that time when we awaken and prepare ourselves for the day. Mental illness is something of a disintegration, especially for the traumatized, and slowly they (we, I) learn to piece themselves back together. Learn to be aware of a consistent and durable self. Until then, the jagged edges are arranged and scattered anew every day.

I felt angry and sad that I’d only just figured out what to say. For yesterday. I felt even angrier that this was what I had to say. Today. Only now did I register my emotions – just as they drowned me awake.

Maybe that’s what it’s like some mornings: a strange, suffocating too much all empty of light.  A collapsed star.

In any case, I understood that I felt extra upset because I’ve been sick. I tried to file that away as something to forgive myself for. Being sick.

I’ve been sick most of the semester. Not just – you know – sick in the head, but also physically struggling. Thus the medical visits and such, which I hate, since I hate anything associated with doctors. (And I am one. Ha.) Medical visits that require every inch of my strength exactly when I don’t have much of it. Only the sick visit doctors, after all. And the sick are weak. And the weak are not safe in the hands of the strong. It’s an old thought that has followed me wherever I am.

Half my nightmares involve some kind of… I can’t look even in memory. Anyway. Stabbing me apart with needles. Basically.

My therapist says that I’ve had a difficult semester. He says it like it means something significant that I should understand, and I see that he thinks this and I see that I do not understand. It’s something just outside a window. I know it’s there, whatever it is. But I’ve done hard things my whole life, and when I look back all I see is some impossible inability to totally die. And it’s hard to be impressed.

At first there was all that… There were those things that happened, and I wish I’d died. And I tried to forget, and I couldn’t, and then I really wished I’d died. Nowadays I don’t wish it that often, but that leaves me with… Well. Everything else. The whole world outside of dying and forgetting. The whole world. Those terrible things, and some existence shivering in them and without them. And me, armed with only my inability to completely die.

The long road of healing is a a bloody-knuckled fight every damn minute of the day. I have to learn essentially a whole universe of skills. Life. That thing people did while I not-died –  they lived. So natural and so beautiful, and I protected it with the only thing of mine that worked: my mind.

I am amazing at thinking.

Nowadays I want to live too.

I sat miserable in my office, working hard, feeling thoroughly sick and thoroughly awake. It reminded me of something ancient, like a blood memory. Something I knew well. That old, clawing awareness of being able to think and unable to move. Like in the hospital beds, or at home. Eyes blinking wearily over a collapsed body and a living mind; a mind flexing all of its strength until it was as if there was no pain. And no body.

Scowling, I felt the ancient thing rise. That old and terrible awareness. I didn’t want it, not at all, and I didn’t want my body to keep failing and I understand that my mind fails too. I can’t do it anymore, and my poor mind can’t anymore. It can’t. My whole self bleeds together, body and soul. Nowhere to go.

Healing is a new kind of pain. It means that now I can feel the unraveling of my own thoughts. It scares me more than anything. I am amazing at thinking. After all. And then – then it’s gone. Gone. Split apart in some brutal Gnostic fantasy. And I hate watching the thoughts scatter and die. I hate being awake to it, burning alive in the self that isn’t thoughts. Self alive and dead to all.

And so weak. The strong are not kind to the weak.

I came home shaking and near tears, and the thing that kept me from crying was that fierce old understanding that crying would only make it worse – I’d definitely pass out then. Crash my car. Collapse down the stairs. I hated the way my vision would go black as I walked, and then my heart would stutter, shoving blood to my brain and sight to my eyes. And I’d stand there on campus, hand gripping a railing. White knuckles. Breathing calmly. Getting upset would do me no good. It would rob me of whatever blood pressure I had left, and I just wanted to go home. And not go to a hospital.

God, please. Not that.

So I arrived home, grim and pale, and silently curled up on my couch. I slept. Not a tear shed.

I feel a little better. My mind is alive with thoughts, almost angrily. A weary part of me doesn’t want that. Just some rest. I won’t be going to work tomorrow, though I hope I get those damn grades in. If I’m too weak, I’ll have to file it away in my head as something to forgive myself for.

Still. I’m not sure which I’m more miserable over: the fever cold thing that turned into a game of chicken with my own judgment, or that I knew how not to cry as I dealt with every single jolt of pain. I knew. I had to go away. File myself away. And I felt it. I felt myself go away. Felt the lights in the library flickering out one by one until there was just a lonely empty desk. Deliberately, carefully, smoothly.

Don’t think. Don’t feel. Survive.

It’s so fucking lonely. And I should’ve said it. When my friend asked how I was feeling and not what I thought. I’m not as good at that. At feeling. How lonely it is. I wish I’d said it. That this is what I feel most of all: I feel how lonely it can be trying to live.

And I know there’s something just outside the window, but I don’t understand.

The Medicated Self

Pills 1

Today I learned that it was my new medicine that causes the tremor in my hands. I felt my own relief viscerally, right between my shoulders, where I had carried my worry with me in silence. Shaking hands aren’t great. They never mean something good.

So it was a strange comfort to know it was simply some of the medicine that keeps me even, calm, engaged. The stuff that somehow takes the suicidal thoughts (“ideations”) and turns them down to a low whisper, easily ignored. Chemicals that help me find sleep somewhere away from the violent nightmares – so brutal, dizzying, incomprehensible. That used to be every night and every day. Without medicine, it still would be.

There is, I understand, controversy over vaccination. It doesn’t make much sense to me. Then again, I’m rather biased: several pills stand between me and a desperate, hollow existence. Not insanity. I’ve never been psychotic. I admit to more flashbacks – without medicine, I mean – a more bent reality folded at sharp angles with the past. Certainly I collapse underneath intense suicidal thoughts. That’s not psychosis. But even if I were psychotic and there was medicine to keep me here with you, wouldn’t we both be grateful? I am grateful. So grateful. I can walk into a classroom without smiling against a current of perfect inner terror.

I am, genuinely, happy to see my students. That means the world to me.

People often worry – and I myself worried – that these medicines would split me apart and take me away from myself. I worried I’d be someone else. Someone not-me, and maybe I wouldn’t even know. I’d become a controlled neurochemical concoction that would wander along in life without feeling. Unable to remember. Like from a sci-fi movie. Or, uh, that one movie with a crazy Natalie Portman in it. No, the other one.

Let me explain, though. What a self is, and what neurological change means. Let’s try to think it through.

Throwing pills at a problem does not resolve it. That’s an odd place to start, but it is the most relevant to my own experience at the moment. Medicine calms things down enough in my head so that I can start to grapple with what bothers me – the memories, the hurt, the deep distrust – instead of, say, ruminating all day over which knife to pull across my throat.

I did not understand that those kinds of thoughts meant my brain was sick. I did not know these were symptoms of a problem I could never think my out of, could never overcome by sheer will. The brain can get sick with all kinds of things, just like every other part of our body. It is a scary and a helpless feeling.

Once I slammed my head against a wall until it ached, desperate to feel something different than dread. I wept, shaking and confused, as it offered no relief. I hardly realized what I was doing.

Was that me? Yes. Yes, it was. That was me, that was real, and that still lives in me.

Still, I don’t think I abandoned myself by taking medicine that allowed me to breathe, to have a solution other than ramming my own skull against a rough wall. That person, that self, had disintegrated into an extremely limited and painful existence. It does not betray pain to allow other feelings in, I learned. In fact, it helps throw pain into real relief, helps me understand it.

I am not someone else.

A theologian named Bernard Lonergan explains that what is spiritual in us is the awareness that knows, feels, decides. The someone who asks and understands. That is me. We are also material creatures with bodies that are fundamental to ourselves. Like the foundation of a house, our bodies fundamentally make the house of knowing possible, but that isn’t the same as knowing itself. In other words, we aren’t just neurons. We are the conscious knowing, the someone, of those neurons – which is, really, quite radically distinct from neurons.

This is a helpful way to explain that, while the brain can get sick, giving it medicine isn’t becoming someone else. It is helping us to be more richly ourselves. If the foundation is cracked, it’s very hard to build a good house. The self is wounded. Fixing the foundation, bandaging the wounds, deepens our experience of who we are. Not the opposite.

I have been able to become a better someone. The same, and better. Someone more. One who can smile and mean it, and yes, can still cry. Every feeling remains available and real. I am not numb, not at all. In fact, I feel even more. It’s amazing how much more room there is in me for all that now that I don’t think of knives all the time.

It is still strange, I won’t lie. As my doctor and I fiddle with medicine. Sometimes I feel a bit like a neurochemical thermometer: nudged up and down with each new dose. I am still haunted by problems, like days when I wake up entirely convinced life is not worth living. Once a comedian said of his own severe depression: “There are just days when I want to throw myself in front of a bus made of knives.” I know what he means. Those days come and go. I am aware now that they can come and go at all.

I would not recommend taking medicine without also attending therapy. Once there’s room enough to feel, a lot of things get serious really, really fast. Having someone to talk to is extremely helpful as that stuff comes to light.

Not every medicine works. The first dose made my head hurt like hell and did nothing else. The next made my stomach ache as if stabbed. It didn’t do much, either. Weeks stretched between each try. It takes weeks for the medicine to take effect, to shift the brain’s chemistry. The side effects, damn them, are much faster. Still, I’ll never forget how it felt to realize I wasn’t thinking so hard about killing myself. I felt a breathless, dazed relief. As if someone had finally taken a boot off my neck.

Thus the tremors. A new experiment. It’s alright, as long as I don’t drink too much caffeine. It’s funny, almost, to have my hands affected. I’m not sure why. Sometimes I laugh when no other reaction seems available. I wonder what it’ll be like to draw on a board, and I laugh. (I hate doing that anyway.) It’s an odd reminder that this isn’t quite normal, my existence. That, yes, my stability is artificial – since it literally requires something artificed, something made. None of that makes me not myself. It doesn’t take away my gentle, determined, and challenging experience of life. All it means is that I need help to have that experience.

Help isn’t so bad, though. It’s another form of grace.

Wordless Presence: On Dog-Whispering and Human-Whispering

“Boy with dog,” Boris Kustodiev

I know a dog named Foxy. She was rescued – probably from abuse. So she’s scared of everyone she doesn’t know. She also sheds all over the damn place.

Human beings love their pets in utterly extravagant ways. It’s proof of how much we want to love, of how capable we are of love: that we take animals and treat them like part of the family. It can get weird quickly, like most of our loves do, and we forget the way animals speak to us mostly through the language of their physical presence – not with secret thoughts or intentions. Certainly not with words. We forget the way we mostly speak that way, too. We express ourselves in the wordless speech that is our bodies.

Back to Foxy.

When I walked through the door to see my friends, she came barreling into the kitchen with a loud bark and rushed over to keep on barking. She shoved herself in front of her owner, defensive, all lean wolf-dog and fluffy white hair. I was handed some treats to give her if she quieted down for me. She did, albeit reluctantly.

I’m not an expert on dogs, but I’m an expert on fear. And I saw that Foxy feels afraid. I understand that. Being hurt by someone else has a way of writing itself all over your skin. Like somehow fear has stitched itself in invisible letters all across your whole body, and nothing that touches you doesn’t remind you how it felt to feel that way. It is a feeling, really, more than it is a thought. A kind of electric hurt wired through every inch of skin. It hums and expands and throbs on contact.

Maybe that’s how Foxy feels. I imagined that it was. It felt important to imagine that in someone else, even a dog. The way she’d jolt and jump then calm herself down, wary and weary: I envied how obvious she was about it. I thought maybe I should pick up barking. Then people would know when I felt upset, because I certainly don’t know how to say it when I am.

I do resent, sometimes, when people need me to spell out how I’m feeling. At my most irritated, I picture some kind of dim lecture hall and a projector, and I need to have a PowerPoint prepared. A chart of emotions and their compelling reasons, all neatly lined up next to each other. As if that’s how any of that worked.

The Church doesn’t have a chart. You know. For what to feel and when. She has lots of things, but not that. And I’m glad.

I patiently set myself to convincing Foxy that she should let me pet her. She’d wander by and I’d conscientiously give her a little soothing touch, let her be on her way. It’s not like I could say, “Hey, I won’t hurt you.” I could only show her, and it’s not the kind of showing that happens all at once. It builds itself through small actions and patience. The crackle of physical fear can’t be overpowered by affection so much as slowly soothed. Loved in broken pieces.

Foxy slowly let me touch her more and more. We all like feeling safe; we all like returning to that place.

You’re not supposed to stare a dog straight in the eyes. This is a challenge in their language, animal to animal. I knew this and still stared right at Foxy, indifferent over whether she’d take up my challenge or not. I don’t really recommend that. I just didn’t care if she bit my face. “Whatever,” I thought, “I’ve had worse.” That was the stubborn shape of the writing on my own skin showing itself a little bit. I’m always rather determined to prove I won’t flinch, that nothing can make me flinch. As if I could somehow in some final way reveal the terrible chasm of hurt that leaves me so cut through with fear that everything else seems inconsequential. As if not crying could summarize how I cry myself to sleep at night.

Eventually, the exhausted dog laid down and let me pet her belly. This is submission in their language, animal to animal. I almost cried, a little jealous and deeply amazed that she could do this, and I touched her with soft reverence. Still she watched me, the strange creature who refused to hurt her and refused to look away. She was waiting, I imagined, for my betrayal. “Oh, Foxy,” I whispered, “what happened to you?”

Not that she could say. Not any more than I can, really.

There’s not a Sacrament that doesn’t involve touch, you know. Not a single one. Even if it is only the gentle touch of words on ears. Because, mostly, we express ourselves through the wordless speech that is our bodies. The host on hands and tongues; the soft feel of oil smoothed over foreheads; palms and fingers and rings.

The slow and patient touch of God.

She held him so gently, and he was so soft.

“Madonna della Scala,” Correggio

I remember visiting a friend of mine when she was a brand new mom. Her husband welcomed me inside and whispered for me to be extra supportive. “She was cutting our baby’s nails, and cut her finger a little. She’s devastated.”

I walked over to the living room, and found my friend holding her little baby in her arms. She didn’t seem to notice my entrance. She just cradled her newborn against her chest, long hair shielding them both as she tilted her head down and rocked gently where she stood. It was, for me, so beautiful I could not speak. I had no idea what to say anyway.

My friend looked up at me, dark eyes wide and wet and vulnerable: “I hurt my baby.”

And there it was, all the messy hurt of a tender mother and a tender child. There was something true in it that I have not forgotten, and that continues to surpass me now.

I remember listening quietly as my friend mourned that first tiny wound with me. I remember how very soft her baby’s skin felt as I held her. I remember gently brushing a thumb over her forehead, amazed. And I was amazed at my friends, whose baby this was.

All babies are surprisingly soft. Their skin is delicate and new, and just the warmth of it is enough to astound. Before widening to consider a baby’s dignity, or future, or anything so grand – I am amazed at how soft a baby is, how vulnerable.

And I am heartbroken to imagine that first wellspring of blood and hurt. However small. There is something in it that surpasses me.

As we prepare for Christmas, I cannot help but think of these things. As words spin across the Internet, weaving every golden thread of meaning possible. It feels so bright. It feels so loud. Perhaps because I am so fragile myself: it is so, so loud.

The world is very loud, very violent. So much blood and hurt.

Even in the Christian outrage against the CIA torture efforts – justifiable outrage – I feel myself overwhelmed and lost. Perplexed at the various arguments that seek to show how insane torture is, how wrong. Not that I disagree. Only that my ears hurt at the volume, and I wonder at its purpose.

Perhaps to mask our heartbreak.

Yes, Jesus was hurt. And Mary wept. And it is wrong, so wrong, to physically and psychologically destroy anyone, anyone at all.

I struggle to understand it. This response. Struggle to understand how it would reach anyone, anyone at all, who hurts. Jesus hurt, and Mary wept, and it was wrong – what happened to you, and you, and you. How many millions of times must we say it? How many hundreds of millions of times until the coldness of such words echoes back to us?

This Christmas, I keep thinking of the softness of that baby Mary held. How vulnerable they both were. How she cradled him in her arms, so gently. How aware of hardness of the world she must have been, and how aware of his softness. Dreading that first little wellspring of blood and hurt.

I do not know what to think, except to say to my Mother that I am soft too. That we all are so very fragile. That I want so much to be held when I hurt so badly it feels impossible. Just impossible. The hurt. And I don’t want to be forgotten.

I wonder if we threaten to forget the tortured, the broken, as we decry the wrong done to them. It’s easier to decry it, sometimes. Easier than holding them, holding that shattered human being, and whispering softly: “Oh child, you are so hurt.”