Making Friends with the Anvil: On Bearing Witness

I went to see Monumental by Holy Body Tattoo and Godspeed, You Black Emperor a couple of weeks ago. It was unbearable. Unbearable in the way Art with a capital A should be: a gut-wrenching reminder of the joy and suffering, the struggle and the weariness, the futile resistance and the final giving up, the longing to connect and the disconnect that comes from such desperate longing. In short: it exposes you to the viscera of the human condition.

The dancers begin on pedestals – they are dressed like drab workers out of some 1984-esque Dystopian fiction or communist-era propaganda film. They remind me a lot of the 1930s era art deco friezes of workers I saw in Nashville, Tennessee. The dancers configuration have that stolid, utilitarian, “I will endure” look.

But then Godspeed begins to play behind a scrim in the background. The haunting notes are slow at first, dirge-like. The dancers are still for the most part, with the occasional flinch. The pace quickens, the tension mounts. The dancers respond in kind – their movements are quick and jerky, engaging in neurotic acts like smoothing their hair or picking at lint until the full force of the Godspeed sound storm hits and the dancers fully give themselves to that state of anxiety and tension that has come to define our modern era, that feeling that something is not right but if we keep on moving maybe no one will notice.

Here is a trailer for the show:

I won’t lie. This performance broke my heart a little. Probably because, I suspect like all the members in the audience, we all recognized ourselves in the frantic desperation of the dancers. And, yes, I will admit, the sheer human-ness of struggling against the things you cannot change, of trying to find a way in, to connect to people and feeling like you are always failing, was a little too close to home. Like all good Art, it mirrors your own struggles then hands your heart back to you on a bloody platter.

Being an audience member has always struck me as simultaneously privileged and disturbing. On the one hand, nothing is expected of you. You can sit in the dark and simply watch what is unfolding on stage. Nothing else is required of you but to bear witness.

I have this moment when the lights go out and the theater is in complete darkness and hundreds of people have managed to remain silent with the exception of some shuffling and coughing (if you think about it, it’s kind of miraculous), where I feel something similar to when you are almost asleep and all of a sudden you feel like you’re falling, that feeling that in some sense you have ceased to exist, that you have now entered someone else’s narrative. The feeling lasts only a moment, but then I feel the liberation of not having to be my own narrative for a while, to be able to exist in the dark with nothing to do but watch.

As I watched the dancers tear their hair out and do impossible marathon feats with their bodies in order to create this heart-breaking assault on my eyes and ears, I thought how it is also one of the hardest thing to do, to sit and witness someone else’s expression of pain and suffering.

But that is what good art is: a constant bearing witness. Whether you are listening to a piece of music, watching a show like Monumental, standing in front of a painting or reading a poem. It does not exist without the audience to bear witness; it is the unknown factor that every artist has to contend with, the individual watching, processing, experiencing their work.

I have been thinking of the notion of bearing witness since last summer, when my two-year old niece was hospitalized for Meckel’s diverticulum. After a whole day in emergency where my sister had to endure watching her child be poked with needles, refused food and water because of the tests she might need to take and completely scared out of her mind, the doctors still hadn’t diagnosed it. My sister and her partner also had a young baby at the time and after 8 hours of the stress of advocating for their daughter, nursing the baby and trying to calm their child down, all while silently freaking out about their daughter’s condition, they finally phoned for relief.

I am the oldest out of three sisters. The sister above is the youngest. I am very, very close to both my sisters, to the point where for most of my life I felt extremely mother bear about them. We have that kind of sister bond where the other can feel when something is not right, even if we are on the other side of the country from each other. When they cry, I cry. What they feel, I feel. Mostly, I want to do anything I can to take away their pain, because it is my pain too.

But as I plastered myself against the wall of the tiny room in that emergency ward, trying my hardest to get out of the way of the nurses fruitlessly searching for a vein in a struggling two-year old’s arm, as I watched my sister remain so calm with her daughter, all the while deeply feeling her panic and fear, the full force of there being absolutely nothing I could do to fix this hit me.

This was not my story. But just as there was nothing to be done, I also felt the importance of my presence in that room. It was vital that I be there to witness the events, to absorb the terror, the panic, the vulnerability — to bear witness so that when the crisis is over, a dialogue is possible, a conversation where all the hurt and pain and chaos can be processed, made sense of.

I think these events in our life, the real big ones, the ones that sucker punch us in the face and knock the wind out of us, are a bit like Einstein’s moon, or that song about the tree in the forest. If nobody else sees it happening, we start to doubt their existence. I have mentioned before how our sense of self is shaped by other’s reflections of us. I think it might be the case with reality itself — things become real only when several pairs of eyes have looked upon it, when several brains have analyzed it and several hearts have felt the weight of it.

That doesn’t mean I know exactly what my sister went through. I don’t. But I had the privilege in that moment to have been able to put my own story aside and fully be present for hers. I honored my sister’s suffering by bearing witness to it. In the future, she will always know that on some level, I was present at that moment. I felt a little bit of what she felt. She will always be able to talk to me about it, as this kind of trauma has the tendency to rear its ugly head when we least expect it, and the first thing we want is to talk to someone who was there, who knows at least where the trauma is coming from.

It is a little thing, but also the biggest thing in the world.

We bear witness to the collective suffering through Art. We bear witness to our loved ones crisis moment by simply being present, by putting our own story aside when theirs takes precedence. But what about our own suffering?

Heartbreak was an anvil that fell from the sky and cratered my chest. I could not surgically remove it with a few caustic words and an upright middle finger (and oh, how I tried). I couldn’t make a detour around it by keeping ridiculously busy (and oh, how I also tried that).

The anvil was sitting on my chest. I couldn’t breathe. There was no ignoring it.

The only thing to do was face it.

At first I raged at the very presence of the anvil, tried to punch it away. How dare it lay on my chest? I didn’t do anything? What did I do? Why is it here? Go away, go away go away!

Yeah. Not so effective.

I had to let go of the idea that I could move it through the sheer force of my will. That perhaps the goal wasn’t to move it, but to make friends with it, to stop and listen to it, to give it room:

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery and joy.”Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

The anvil is not gone. But it is less threatening, less ready to crush me under its weight. By simply accepting that it is there on my chest, by letting myself feel all the weight of its sorrow, by giving it room to exist and paying attention to it, its edges are getting less sharp, its surface is beginning to erode with gentle stroking. Heartbreak and rejection has taught me that just as it is important to bear witness to the pain of other’s, it is just as essential to bear witness to my own.

It might be too soon to say, but I think, maybe, my anvil and I are becoming friends. Here’s to hoping there’s enough room in my chest for the both of us…








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