or   The Big Wave Is A-Coming!

“Want to see the tsunami maps?” my husband asked me this morning.1 He is a news and internet junkie and apparently someone recorded an earthquake in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a 7.7 on the Richter scale (read very scary). Immediately people predicted if, when, and where tsunamis would hit. After the horrors of the 2005 tsunami made front page/top story news here in the States, we remain sensitized to that type of suffering.

But people are funny in that they care about things, events, people they can see. Think of 9/11 — those images haunted our visual culture day in and day out for months. A tragedy, no question, but what of the faceless people killed in car accidents daily? I heard an ironic statistic regarding the aftermath of 9/11: with the decrease in flying and increase in driving, additional thousands of people have died of car accidents, more than all those who died in the towers, planes, and Pentagon.

Currently we Americans are sensitive to tsunamis, hurricanes (due to the unbelievably poor response to Katrina), and casualties of war (thanks Bush, Iraq, and the ‘global war on terror’). But none of those are new tragedies; they are just new to us.

Consider the Sudan, a country that has been at civil war for three decades. Did we care before our own young people were dying? Or the Lord’s Resistance Army, a terrorist group in Uganda that has been abducting, torturing, and killing children since at least 1994. And no one knows what they want, least of all Joseph Kony, the madman in charge of the ‘army’.

My perspective of the world comes from two very different views. First, there is the middle-class, well educated American woman. Only by examining that life from the other perspective that I can see what that means. When I first come back from living in a remote place in Africa, a place filled with poverty, sickness, and death, I can appreciate my life here in a disturbingly miraculous way. For the first few weeks, I am the richest, luckiest person on earth. Why? I have everything, EVERYTHING, a person could want for themselves. I have a house, not a few pieces of tin strapped together. Clean water comes into my house…. no walking a mile to the well and carrying the ‘jerry can’ back on my head. Not only that, I can have hot water at the turn of knob. Hot water!! No fire needed. Running water means I can drink, shower, and piddle in my house. Clean water comes in, dirty water goes out, and I never have to think about it unless something goes wrong. Even the lowly toilet seat reveals itself to be a wonderful engineered luxury.

The list goes on and on: electricity for refrigerators and lights; smokeless cooking; roads (!!); police/firemen/ambulances; food available 24 hours per day. You get the picture. But you don’t. Not really. I can describe poverty until my computer crashes, but you cannot really understand until you live it. I know I did not.

How does one come back into this consumer society after seeing children eating out of garbage heaps? After seeing rich white people come to Africa to see the animals ‘before they are all gone’ while people just outside the parks starve? How does one erase the memory of lepers scooting along the road on their butts because their feet and legs have rotted off? Seeing the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide? How does one live with oneself after wanting to provide people who ask for so little with the most basic resources and being unable to help? They and a billion others who I will never see or know, remain in those desperate circumstances. And they will probably do so long after I die.

In many ways those African experiences destroyed my optimism, dashed my hopes. My spirit broke. The question remains whether it will heal stronger than ever, or continue as a festering sore?

Africa changed my view of the outer world, and since the death of my father, my inner world seems different. Struggles I have had for years now have obvious solutions, such as not trying to change anyone but myself. How could I not understand before? I just did not…. just as planes over NYC never seemed ominous before 2001.

Life events change us, (hopefully) opening up new insight. But I sit here and write this paper on my computer for a class in an expensive art school (a luxury even here) and listen to my classmates talk about modern culture. To MFA or not? What can I say to them? Some will see what I have seen. Some will see far worse. Some will never leave the comfortable life. I cannot judge. Perhaps I envy them their innocence? Perhaps I would rather be that naïve person I was long ago.

Of course I cannot go back. Disasters, war, and suffering happen every day, whether it makes the cover of Time Magazine or not. That is unchangeable. But what I fear is that I cannot communicate…. that I cannot incorporate my world view into art in a way that will enlighten, not lecture, the audience. Can art offer insight or answers? Things of significance? I have my doubts. All I do know is that big wave is a-coming, and is gonna [sic] hit somewhere.