Eleanor Wachtel in conversation with ex-Marine Elliot Ackerman about grief and modern warfare

WaitingForEden

Elliot Ackerman is a novelist and an ex-Marine who was an active duty officer for eight years, including five tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also spent three years as a journalist in Syria, covering that country’s civil war.

Recently I listened to his interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers & Company, where he talked about his latest novel, Waiting for Eden. Novelists can reach people like me who aren’t always well-informed about current political events, because they present these events at a personal level; that is, they appeal to readers’ desire for characters and their stories. In this way a huge, often faraway event can be made real.

Wachtel’s entire interview with Ackerman was hugely moving, but the part that got me hooked—because it was heartbreaking—was the five-minute reading Ackerman gave from Waiting for Eden.

The passage he read is written from the point of view of a young, inexperienced nurse who is working at a veterans’ hospital. It is Christmas Day, and she is alone on duty on the floor where an injured soldier, sent back from Afghanistan three years earlier, is being tended. This man, Eden—reduced from a 220-pound soldier to a 70-pound multiple amputee—also has terrible burns and can’t speak or hear. None of the doctors expect him to survive.

The nurse is at her desk monitoring Eden’s vital signs. It seems awful to her that he’s lying there, not being allowed to die. She doesn’t plan to go to his room. She doesn’t want to see that being in the bed that she can’t think of as either living or dead.

However, at some point, “knowing she was spending her Christmas with him, and his with her, and that this might be his last Christmas,” she is compelled to go to him. She unplugs the small Christmas tree from her desk (it’s a tree with lights, like the ones Snoopy put on his doghouse) and takes it with her to Eden’s room.

When she first goes in, she looks around him, not at him. But when she opens the blinds, she can see him in a way she hadn’t before. She can see “. . . the white of his linens, the little pink stains where pieces of him had stuck against them . . . the great hollows of his wounds . . . ” The intricate, awful details continue, and Elliot closes the description with this: “His eyes blinked at her, unprotected by lashes, and she could see where they were rheumy without rest and soapy with pain, and how they teared against his pillow, always.”

I felt as though I could scarcely bear what I heard in this five-minute reading, yet Ackerman’s writing was so exquisite I knew I had to read the book.

As a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman had much to say about the reasons why these wars go on and on. He spoke about what he sees as the role of the American military in international wars. Also, he spoke frankly about his personal motivation to participate in a war—and what he’s come to learn about the nature of grief.

Commenting on the seventeen years of  war in Afghanistan, and the even longer Vietnam War, Ackerman said that wars are “shape-shifting entities”—they don’t usually continue for the same reasons they were begun. According to Ackerman, American leaders as far back as Kennedy knew the Vietnam War couldn’t be won, yet they kept it going for both domestic and international political reasons.

Then there is the role of grief in maintaining wars. As a journalist, Ackerman understood the Syrians’ desire for democratic reforms. They believed their cause was undeniably a good one, so their protests had to have a positive outcome. Instead, their country was destroyed. Elliot says, “You have people who have lost so much—they can just never be made whole. And that will keep a war going for a long, long time.”

Return to Eden is largely an examination of the nature of grief. Ackerman talked about the “narrative arc of grief”—that it’s a process we move through, and we eventually get over things. He said it’s just not true. Sometimes we just keep enduring the loss. Waiting. Waiting as Eden does in the hospital, as his wife Mary does in “holding faith” with Eden.

Part of the interview was about Ackerman’s background—he lived with his family in London between the ages of nine and fifteen, and he believes this gave him a “slant” view of what being an American means. Wachtel was subtly questioning whether it is possible to be proud of being an American in today’s political climate. But Ackerman’s response was firmly idealistic.

He still believes there is a “responsibility that comes with being an American. He said, “We’re a nation that all aspires to a collective ideal. We’re all immigrants. We all come here because we opt into this ideal of what it means to be an American.” According to Ackerman, the American ideal is to strive for perfection, to strive for a “more perfect union,” even though the ideal is never realized. He said that when people ask what it’s like to be an American, what they’re really asking is what it’s like to live in a society that’s idea-based as opposed to race-based or ethnically-based.

What kept him motivated when he was still on active duty? Ackerman said that when it comes to specific wars, people like himself are motivated to fight for personal reasons, not ideological ones. “I’m a Marine, it’s my job. I’m taking care of my buddies.”

Yet he has never stopped thinking about the reasons for wars, and the morality of them. He spoke passionately about what he sees as the moral hazard in modern wars. Why are wars so difficult to end? As mentioned above, it’s partly because of the grief and losses that the populations involved have endured. But it’s also because of the “outsiders” who are trying to intervene—including the US. The American military is fighting, but the American people as a whole are not engaged with the wars the US is fighting. These wars are fought solely by volunteers and funded by deficit spending. There is no incentive for the country as a whole to discuss the morality and financial aspects of war.

Ackerman mentioned “a modest proposal” he’s written about: he would like to see an American military where ten percent of the combat units would be draftees. Critically, these draftees would come solely from families in the US who file in the top income tax bracket. Ackerman knows this would never happen; yet his point is that if the wealthy elite segment of the American population had a personal interest in the overseas wars their military fights, politicians would have incentives for ending them.

War has influenced Ackerman’s views of both luck and grief. He commented that many people see their luck as something that is preordained. He sees luck as a totally random thing whose role is underrated. He described being shot at—and missed—and said that made the nature of luck very clear to him.

As for grief, he said it was the birth of his daughter that made him understand the enormity of personal loss. When Wachtel questioned him about why he left the military, he said a major reason was to be with his daughter. But also, he felt it was time to have a new purpose in life, and for him that meant writing novels.

Was it difficult for Ackerman to leave the military? He said, “You have to find another purpose. In life, we all derive our happiness from a sense of purpose.” He went on to say, “In the military there is a very clear and intense sense of purpose. . .  you see this with a lot of athletes, artists who’ve achieved early success—anyone who’s been up to the summit—you have to then reckon with the descent.”

To me, these words were inspiring. They reminded me that we can all be multi-faceted. We can embrace change, find a new purpose, and have the courage to believe we can reinvent ourselves.

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Eleanor Wachtel interviews Caribbean poet Derek Walcott: “That resolution into light”

Every Sunday I listen to Eleanor Wachtel interview writers on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company. Last Sunday, when I heard that the guest was a poet, I was mildly disappointed. I don’t read much poetry. I’ve concluded that I can only consume poetry in small doses, when I’m prepared to read slowly and think deeply about what I read. I especially like ambiguous poetry, where the interpretation remains a puzzle and can vary hugely from reader to reader.

In any case, I was completely wrong to think that last Sunday’s replay of a 2006 interview with poet Derek Walcott would not fully engage me. First of all, Walcott (who died in March, 2017) was from St. Lucia, and I found his Caribbean accent delightful and comforting because my father is from Trinidad. Although my father emigrated to Canada at the age of 20, his voice still retains slight nuances of his Trinidadian accent, and Walcott’s pronunciation reminded me of my father’s.

Secondly, almost the instant I heard Walcott speak, I was also reminded that although writing is the only art I follow avidly, I believe that all artistic expression, be it painting, photography, music, dancing, sculpture, theatre, or something else—is ultimately about the same things: striving to transcend our mere biological existence and the mundane necessities of life. It seems that most human beings, if they can get beyond putting all their energy into survival, thirst for more and want to express more. Artists want to give their interpretation of grappling with the deepest questions we have about human existence: about joy,  about suffering, about beauty, about why and whether an individual life must end.

But back to Derek Walcott. The whole interview was fascinating, but the section between minutes 13:58 and 16:24 was especially meaningful to me. Here, Walcott struggles (with dazzling eloquence) to explain just what it is that poets—writers—indeed, all artists—strive for.

In this section, Walcott is responding to Wachtel’s query about what he means in his book The Prodigal when he talks about “the anguish and emptiness of the poet.”

He answers that all experience has a dual aspect, and that the duality has to do poets’ sense of incompleteness,  “a perpetual condition of being unfulfilled.” They recognize an identity, an “I” (ego) and its incompleteness, and in their poetry they are striving to remedy that. He says that the parts of poetry that move us are the times when we experience a “sense of fusion happening, when ambiguity is resolved.” Walcott calls this “a resolution into light . . . ”

According to him, this resolution is “absolutely, celestially confirmed best of all in Dante, in the last cantos of Divina Commedia [The Divine Comedy], where what you feel is radiance, what you feel is completion, you feel light coming off the page.” He says this also happens in the last speech of Prospero in The Tempest (Shakespeare).

This is what all poets strive for, says Walcott. He is talking about “the dissolution of the identity of the poet in terms of blending with what’s around him.” Thus, the poet’s sense of incompleteness is “resolved into light.”

Moreover, “All art strives at that—that light—it is a completion.”

Walcott expresses all of this much better than I can do in this summary. It’s necessary to listen to every second of the interview in order to fully understand and appreciate his words. But what he’s saying here seems to me to be the same thing Buddhists talk about when they talk about the attaining Nirvana, when the borders of the ego are erased and an individual consciousness merges into the One.

***

DerekWalcottProdigal

You can listen to the podcast of Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Derek Walcott here.

This interview reminded me of what I love about Writers & Company. Not only does Wachtel introduce us to outstanding writers and their works, but interviewees in turn reference the great books and other kinds of art that have inspired them. The writing (and reading) life is one of endlessly rich entanglements and connections.

 

Enchantment with books I: Tim Winton’s Eyrie

From late September until early November, I read several good books, attended Vancouver Writers Fest events, and listened to radio interviews of writers (mainly CBC’s wonderful Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel). Every one of these books or interviews overwhelmed me with ideas that I was itching to blog about, but I had no time.

What amazes me now, as I read over the notes that I wrote hastily during that intense period of reading stimulation, is the way many different writers’ ideas coalesced in my mind to form related themes. They all led me to a deeper understanding of why reading and writing are so important to me.

Why do books delight me, stimulate me, comfort me, and make me feel spiritually rich?

A couple of days ago I started trying to write a post that would answer this question properly; that would tie together all these writers and their books and and what they meant to me. My post turned into a multi-headed hydra that was leading me to despair. How do people ever write a novel? I can’t even finish a short story! I can’t even finish a blog post!

So I decide to chop off this hydra’s heads, one by one, and present each head (hopefully still wriggling with life) as a separate blog post that didn’t take two hours to read. At the bottom of this first instalment, I’ll add a list of the books, interviews, and writing-related events that influenced me.

Here is the hydra’s brain (i.e. the thesis).

Books enchant me.

Book Cover of Eyrie by Tim WInton

Story One: It was a dark and stormy night and Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Tim Winton on Writers & Company

About a month ago I was driving home from my Running Room job; it was the first day of Pacific Standard Time, pouring rain, and already dark at 5:30. I could have been depressed, driving on this gloomy, dangerous night, but no—I was listening to Eleanor Wachtel talking to Australian novelist Tim Winton. Encapsulated in my warm car, I was transported to another world.

Winton’s voice was intriguing with its Australian accent, and Wachtel, as always, sounded both soothing and engaged. They were discussing Winton’s latest novel, Eyrie. (You can read The Guardian’s rave review here or listen to the full Writers & Company interview here.)

I can’t do full justice to the book or the interview, but some things branded themselves in my memory. I was gripped when Winton read aloud a part of the book that showed his two protagonists’ vulnerability. The middle-aged Tom Keely is divorced and unemployed. He forms an unusual friendship with a six-year-old boy, Kai, who is a neighbour in their seedy highrise. Kai lives with his depressed grandmother Gemma and has known little but abuse and neglect during his short life. Keely and Kai are drawn together by their mutual fascination with birds, especially birds of prey.

Winton read a section of his book that describes Keely taking Kai and Gemma out on a boat to a place where he’s promised they will see an osprey. There are agonizing moments when Keely fears the bird won’t appear. He knows how many times Kai has been lied to and disappointed. He wants so badly not to wound his friend.

Then comes the moment when they see the osprey rising; the bird was there all the time, camouflaged against its tree background. Instead of disappointment, Keely and Kai have the joy of sharing that experience.

As Winton read, I felt, I shared, his characters’ love of birds, their respect and awe for the beauty and abilities of natural creatures.

I was enchanted. I was lifted to a higher place, a place where one is given the gift of entering into the consciousness of another human being. It doesn’t matter whether that being is the writer, the fictional character, or a real person.

Later in the interview, Wachtel was asking Winton questions about the purpose of his writing; he has become an impassioned environmental activist who has made significant contributions to the preservation of Australia’s natural places. She was asking about whether he intends his novels to educate or persuade people. Winton responded that he doesn’t see the novel as a tool of persuasion, but rather as “a tool of enchantment.”
I remembered hearing very similar words a few months ago, when I listened to another CBC radio interview (it might have been Jian Ghomeshi on Q!) with swordfighter and fantasy writer Sebastien de Castell. I haven’t read hardly any fantasy since I was a teenager, but de Castell’s description of the genre made me curious to turn to it again. De Castell said that escapism is the not “loftiest” purpose of the fastasy novel; rather, at its best, fantasy creates a sense of wonder in readers, enabling them to experience a sense of re-enchantment in their real lives.

That idea sure struck a chord with me. I reflect on all the ways that novels enchant me; there are many aspects of enchantment. It’s being lost in another world, another place or time, another person’s mind. It’s being told a story: being led on, step by step, and wanting to know what happens next. What is the ending? It’s the way you somehow care about this imaginary character that you develop an attachment to, whether it is because that person is like you, or because that person attracts you in some way. It’s being enchanted by the beauty of language; the structure of a sentence or the musical sounds of words or the musical cadences of phrases. It’s the enchantment of intellectual stimulation, the click of “aha!” moments.

As I drove home on that rainy November evening, listening to Eleanor Wachtel and Tim Winton, I had friends on my solitary journey. I knew my truest inner nature was being satisfied and nurtured. Though I was physically sitting in a car, automatically doing all I needed to do to drive safely, my spirit was in another place, a place of intense fascination, emotional arousal, and thankfulness.

***

Literary influences from September to November 2014

Books and poetry

  • The Order of Things, by David Gilmour
  • Between, by Angie Abdou
  • The Juliet Stories by Bill Gaston
  • Love, Again by Doris Lessing
  • The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
  • Tales of a Wayside Inn (1874) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Radio interviews

  • Writers & Company: Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Ali Smith (Oct. 5) about Art, Tim Winton (Nov. 2) about Eyrie
  • CIUT Radio PowerDrive (Toronto): Johnny Fox (aka John Atkinson) interviewing Angie Abdou about Between and the writing life at Toronto’s Word on the Street (Sept. 25)

Vancouver Writers Fest Events
October 24, 2104

“Better Living Through Books?”

  • With panellists/writers Rebecca Mead, Nadia Bozak, and Damon Galgut, guided by   moderator/writer Angie Abdou

“A Tangled Web”

  • With panellists/writers Arjun Basu, Martha Baillie, and Kate Pullinger guided by   moderator/writer Lee Henderson

To be continued…

Eleanor Wachtel talks to Jackie Kay about identity, relationships, and writing on “Writers & Company”

Yesterday evening I had a near-mystical experience of closeness—the kind of closeness you can have when you are alone, yet deeply connected in some way to others. I was listening to Eleanor Wachtel’s “Writers & Company” on CBC’s radio one. Wachtel was interviewing Scottish writer Jackie Kay.

Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay

It is rare for me to let myself stop everything to lie on my couch, close my eyes, and devote myself completely to listening. As I did so, a deep peace came over me. Kay’s voice was lovely with its accent and soft tones.

I learned about a few things—the author’s adoption as a sickly baby, her growing up with her adoptive parents in Glasgow, her experiences being bullied as a kid with dark skin (her biological father is Nigerian) in a country of pale-faced people, her disturbing meetings with her biological parents.

But an interview of this depth is about more than learning facts. It evokes the wonder of being let into someone else’s life, someone else’s imagination. Kay was not speaking to me personally, but she was sharing herself, fully and honestly. And even though I’m just one anonymous listener, I feel the kinship of being a fellow writer (on a humble level), of the comfort that writing brings, the compulsion to do it, to share, the way writing explains not only to others but to oneself.

Receiving this gift of the window into someone else’s mind and soul—even when it’s just one articulate person speaking—I feel my world expanding. I think of the multitude of voices that speak, that write, that teach me, broaden me, open me. Yes, I can’t help repeating, “This is a gift. I am so thankful. I am so thankful for this hour with Eleanor Wachtel and Jackie Kay.”

One level of being thankful is for the writer’s ideas and stories. They make me a richer person.

On another level is the sheer sensory pleasure of listening to Kay’s voice. At times, I could let myself drift and listen to that voice simply as a musical texture divorced from the meaning of the words, a caress that soothed and relaxed me. Wachtel’s rich, intelligent voice, interjecting with a brief question or comment every now and then, was a perfect counterpoint to the musicality of Kay’s accented words.

One part of Kay’s story in particular sticks in my mind. She and Wachtel talked about how Kay’s books are often about identity; this is understandable considering that Kay was adopted at birth. The amazing thing about her adoption is that she was born brain-damaged, and her adoptive mother was strongly advised to choose another baby. Yet the mother insisted on taking the baby she had planned to make her own from before the time she was born. What mysterious force can make an adoptive mother love a sick baby, unconditionally, before that baby can even be known as a person? How can this happen without the compelling strength of biological instinct?

I don’t know the answer to these questions; I can’t imagine myself being capable of such a love; but the woman who became Kay’s mother made this choice. She has been richly rewarded by the closeness she still shares with this wonderful, talented woman, who says that her adoptive mother and father made her what she is.

Kay’s adoption story is just one example of the inexplicable love and goodness that some people radiate. Hearing Kay talk about her life, and hearing her read some nuggets from her poetry and stories, made me think about the love that is everywhere and the way love grows as it is shared.

I was only one person out of perhaps thousands of listeners. Kay changed my life during that hour or so of listening. When she was finished, the setting sun was flooding my apartment, turning it golden, and I was enveloped in peacefulness and gratitude.

***

You can listen to Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Jackie Kay here. “Writers & Company” airs on CBC radio one Vancouver 88.1 FM 690 AM at 5:00 p.m. Sundays.

Cover of Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay

During her interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Kay reads her story “You Go When You Can No Longer Stay” from this collection.