Ruin

I stopped getting the newspaper in late December of 2012. I had been a mother for only a month when the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting happened, and day after day I couldn’t stop myself from weeping as I read the newspaper at my dining room table, the great sheaves of flimsy paper shaking in my hands, ink staining my fingertips, before I went to hold my own child the way those other mothers and fathers never again would. In those first few months, I’d wake in the middle of the night just to watch him breathe, his tiny hands clenched by his face, my body aching with exhaustion and worry. Worry over so many things, some I could name, some I could not.

So I stopped reading the paper and, for a while, news from any source, tired of the broken world with its broken people that kept breaking my heart over and over. I tried instead to build a little island of happiness and peace inside our home for that one tiny infant. Even then I knew I couldn’t fix the world. As it turned out, I couldn’t even hold that one household together, and tonight I feel it again, the way brokenness seeps into the edges of things, as exhausting as tides wearing down rock, the way it suddenly gives way to sand, to water, to flooding, to an endless spilling onto shore.

Recently, in a beautiful but difficult to bear photo series by Magnus Wennman I read of a Syrian girl terrified of her pillow because bombings happen at night. How can I hold this, the image of that terrified child, side by side in my mind with the image of my happy one? I would promise her, the way I promise my own when he wakes at night, that there is nothing to fear, the way I promise him that he will be okay, that it is a mother’s job to protect a child, and that because of this, he will always be safe.

It is true that we are nowhere near war. We are insulated in a quiet suburb in a quiet Midwestern town. But even as they come across my lips, I know the words for the lie they are. Even here, parents don’t always come back. He has already learned this. Not even 3, and already so much loss. I want him to love the world, even the broken one, to let his heart swing open, not shutter, not shudder, not bang itself closed, the latch clicking behind him. I want to do better with him than I am doing for myself. But in the night, watching the moon, I am still that exhausted new mother, aching for the lost children, weeping, with nothing good left to say.

These last few days, instead of the news, I have been looking at old books of paintings and Sotheby’s catalogs, purchased secondhand for $2 in the days when buying a new art book was more than my budget could handle. One book features work by August Strindberg, painter and writer. In an 1894 painting titled “Ruin,” he depicts the crumbling remnants of a building near a tree, a single, small, deeply green tree. But it isn’t the ruin in this painting that draws me in. As always with Strindberg, it is the sky I am drawn to, the sky that dominates above the ruin and the whole left side of the painting. In one of Strindberg’s novels, his semi-autobiographical protagonist makes this very same painting, saying that when he “saw the clear blue of the sky he felt sentimental, and when he had conjured up green bushes and grass he felt unspeakably happy.”

Instead of reading the news, I am trying to imagine I am there with Strindberg’s Johan, caught by the muse of the sky, my hands tingling with the need to communicate it, to tender the unknowable into a wash of pigments, a splatter of images across the page. To capture exactly how the gray blue of the sky echoed the slowly moving waves of the sea, the grey of the crumbling castle. To see at last how there was no longer any division between sea and sky and ruin, the ruin now part of a whole, part of a sky that stretched still farther than Johan’s eyes could see, still farther than my mind could hold. A sky so big it could hold together the entirety of a broken world, make beauty of ruin.

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