One recent morning, a memory of the smell of the Cape Cod shoreline seared across me so sharply I almost gasped. Our memories of place can have this effect on us. After decades in the southwestern desert, I still miss the scarlet reds of east coast maple trees in autumn so much that I sometimes want to cry. Such moments are so loaded with the miracle of memory.
I have been thinking a lot recently about the plight of refugees, particularly those fleeing from Syria and the Middle East, and about the dysphoria they must feel at being displaced. Not only are their whole lives turned upside down by war, but they must attempt to forge a new life in a landscape that they cannot perceive as ‘home’. This morning, I see that Nadia Murad has won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work advocating for sex-trafficking victims. Ms. Murad has suffered so much, and is so determined not to abandon the victims in her homeland, so many of whom have faced exile, or worse.
Surviving trauma is an exercise in learning to dwell in foreign land.
The landscapes of childhood safety and belonging are replaced by the grey-brown panorama of not-belonging: fear, insecurity, and anxiety make monotone our environment. As we struggle to heal, one of the most difficult factors is the inability to feel at home in the natural world. My heart is moved by all of those whom trauma has snatched out of their birthright belonging. Metaphor can seem a cheap substitute for the leaves, the earth, the smells and colors of a home now lost. Figurative or literal, this loss is real.
Thinking about Iraq, another side to the suffering comes to mind – the documentary Lioness, by Meg McLagen, about an all-female troop of Army support soldiers deployed in Iraq, there to serve in any way they were needed, and who found themselves under fire in combat long before women were legally allowed in combat. Their story had not been told prior to Ms. McLagen’s work. All of our troops had a very hard time in Iraq. But the men around these women received recognition for their valor, while these women’s story remained hidden. They were not supposed to be where they found themselves. They were erased from the landscape. Finally, their story has been told. In one of the final scenes, the women gather at a reunion, and watch a television documentary that had been made of many firefights in Iraq during their year deployed. They grow silent as they realize that none of these films acknowledges their presence. “We were there,” one woman finally says. Yes, the others nod and murmur. We were there.
How can we honor the places of memory, often forever altered by war and trauma?
I think of the scars that are visible in a place – the skyline of Manhattan after 9/11, minus the twin towers, or the bunkers and bomb craters across Europe, now grown over by grass, but forever memorializing a generation whose homes were torn apart by war. The rows of crosses in Arlington, the broken stone rubble of a century-old cottage, all that remains of a Plains family’s long-abandoned homestead.
I believe that we must learn to look upon these forever-altered landscapes not just for what was lost, but for what is there now. We must learn that to look upon the altered landscape is to listen. It is the burden of our human legacy. To hear the story of trauma and ruined lives by viewing the artifacts of human lives and human violence as they are preserved in the land.
The feminist Simone de Beauvoir speaks of the feeling of being uprooting: “I should like to be the landscape which I am contemplating, I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me,” she writes. We women know so much about birth, and nurturing growth. Would that all these hard-earned lessons could have helped women to thrive and be nourished in their homes? And yet so many have had to ache instead. Let us bear witness.
A place-prayer: “Oh Lord, teach me to look upon and to honor the relics of suffering preserved in the landscape. Teach me to love the signs. Teach me to see the world in a grain of sand, and to rejoice in the midst of suffering.”
Claudia Hauer has a Ph. D. in Classics, and teaches in the liberal arts at St. John’s College and the U. S. Air Force Academy. She had an overwhelming conversion experience five years ago, and is just now learning to tell the story of her faith journey.