Yesterday's shooting at Fort Hood has the quality of a nightmare that repeats itself: another military member, after deployment, in the middle of trying to receive help, takes his anger out on those around him; another family is left devastated; another community reels in shock and fear. A Navy sailor was found with a gunshot wound and later died from her injuries last week; a Marine opened fire on two colleagues at Quantico before turning the gun on himself the day before that.
And the nation looks for answers. The media analyzes causes and effects. Viewers attempt to comfort themselves with bits of knowledge. This is a natural human response. When we are worried, we get objective. We want things to be predictable. We seek out people to help us do this. Politicians. Psychologists. Scientists. A whole network of experts whose job it is to help us through hard times with numbers and facts.
Sometimes the numbers help us face facts and make us feel less alone. But the one thing the numbers and facts can't do is change anything. What I have found, in my work as a writing coach with trauma survivors and in my teaching with military moms for Courage Beyond, a Program of Centerstone Military Services, is that it is words that will allow us to connect deeply to the feeling of the experience and open to healing.
But not just any words. Words connected to sound and breath and being. Words connected to the space and time and breath and body in which they are created. Words that connect us to the circle of all that is.
Words do this because it is through words that we bear witness. For many military wives, the absence of a witness for their fear and longing, grief and confusion, anger and self-blame, means that they are not actually feeling their feelings. They are, instead, like so many of us when it comes to facing the devastation of these past twelve years of war, walking around like zombies.
What makes traumatic memory different from ordinary memory is that it is not recorded narratively ("I went the store, I saw John there, and he told me....") but instead often returns to us, unbidden, in the form of flashbacks and nightmares.
Freud wrote that the survivor "wakes to the fact of having survived." This is why those pre-dawn hours can be so harrowing, as the vivid feelings of the event return to us in dreams and we lie alone in the dark, heart pounding, wondering if there is a way out of the nightmare that invades us in the most intimate spaces of our beds.
But there is a way out -- through writing.
Perhaps it is time now, during April, which is National Poetry Month, to admit our national need for poetry. This is because poetry uses the ingredients of traumatic memory -- images, sounds, smells, flashes of fear without a story -- and allows us to begin to face the feelings of what has happened. We take the face of those feelings in our hands and get up real close and say, "Here I am. See me? I see you."
The thing about memories that play over and over like a knife looping through our bowels is that they aren't linear. They aren't logical. They don't exist with a beginning, middle and end.
Linear logic, a beginning, middle, and end -- these aren't essential nutrients for poetry. Poetry says, "Give me the image. Start there." And when we allow ourselves to do this, what comes out is from a deeper and higher place than our everyday selves.
We want to forget this. When our pasts are filled with pain, we want to pretend that we can jump up from the muddy creek onto the bank and walk away, clean. We might walk away, but we are not clean. And neither is the creek. And when we walk away, we eventually end up in another creek, spreading the contamination.
Poetry can help us begin the witnessing process even when there is no story. We can use the very things that haunt and they can jumpstart us into connecting words to feelings.
Once the words are pinned on paper like beautiful butterflies, we open ourselves to the other who can say, "Look at those beautiful wings. The patterns. Their complexity and yet their shared ability to rise and fly."
For those in the military and their families, the wars are not yet over. The recent shooting at Fort Hood is a reminder that the wars will not even be over when those in uniform come home. And, as in so many other ways, it will be the families who will carry the burden of caring for the wounded in body and spirit.
Perhaps it is time to move beyond the VA and the experts and give the families the tools they need to witness what has happened so they can truly begin to heal. Poetry can do that. Words can do that. We owe this to them. We just have to give them the opportunity to try.