Writers end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be released. ~Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones)
Our words are our witness. The energy at the National Guard Armory in Tomah,
Wisconsin on March 21, 2003 was tangible. My husband Mike’s Army Reserve unit had left for Fort McCoy on February 14th to train for a mission in Iraq. We found ourselves reunited for a precious weekend and it felt like a movie come to life as Mike rushed off the bus and into my arms. I think it was the only time since we’ve been together that Mike did not bother wiping my lipstick off his face after a kiss. It’s difficult to explain how in such a short time things could change, but he even smelled different than when he left home. He said the PX did not carry his usual cologne so he had improvised. It is a smell I will always associate with freedom and with innocence. He was tan from building bridges across the moody Mississippi at Ford Leonard Wood, Missouri. Mike’s smile warmed Wisconsin and we laughed as I rubbed my hand over his closely cropped hair.
I use to say that the Holiday Inn was roughing it. It may embarrass me now, but that’s what I once was. A moment can
change you. In the spring of 2003 our room at the Holiday Inn was luxury. Time off from chemical warfare and desert training. For a couple days you did not belong to Uncle Sam.
Our room was decorated in the Early Northwood’s Period. Polyester quilted bedspread. Forest green scheme with majestic pine trees and leaping trout. Moose or black bear, or whatever creature was
watching from the wallpaper border seemed as engrossed in CNN as we were. You held me as we watched the sky fall. Shock and Awe rained down on Bagdad. We felt life would never be the same. Though we never said it, we both knew it. Every beginning
must start with an ending. Two beginnings. Two questions. I will wait for you. You were crying, I was crying. A beautiful moment and I could not help thinking we were
becoming a bad war story and I didn’t want to be Penelope left without a map. The Odyssey isn’t a Homecoming. Ithaca will still ask that question of Odysseus
and he will answer. Two beginnings. Two questions. One didn’t care what my answer was. You were already gone. Left me the night the orders came. Before the war. Before the loss. Before the American Flag. ~2004
My obsession with war stories started before I met Mike. Growing up the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran and granddaughter of WWII veterans I lived surrounded by the legacy of war. I have pages of poems that I have penned using war metaphors and the unit on Greek mythology that I teach to my 9th grade English classes allows me to further honor my obsession. I am intrigued by the fact that we can read The Odyssey (an epic poem which Homer was believed to have composed during his lifetime in the 8th or 9th century) and we can still find elements that ring true today. I try to convince my students to view the hero’s journey with multiple perspectives. Could the story of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, be an analogy for imperialism? How can we relate to Odysseus’ hubris? If we listen closely can we hear Penelope’s voice over the clamor of war?
At the beginning of this school year I read Natalie Goldberg’s chapter “Obsessions” from her book Writing Down the Bones to my creative writing students. Goldberg states, “I have my writing groups make lists of their obsessions so that they can see what they unconsciously (and consciously) spend their waking hours thinking about. After you write them down you can put them to good use. You have a list of things to write about. And your main obsessions have power; they are what you will come back to in your writing over and over again. And you will create new stories around them. So you might as well give in to them. They probably take over your life whether you want them to or not, so you ought to get them to work for you” (42).
I had my creative writing students do exactly what Goldberg suggests. We wrote and shared lists of our obsessions. It was a powerful exercise that fueled a classroom discussion and set a tone that promised we would not judge, but instead would respect each other’s obsessions. One student shared a story about an acquaintance minimizing the fact that often wrote about being bi-racial, another about growing up in an alcohol influenced family, and one student confessed that she often penned Vampire dramas. I like to think that like Goldberg says if we give these topics room to breathe they will “take their place in the Hall of Obsessions and allow space for other topics.” By listening to the voice that is within us we can avoid a block and free up our creativity.
I must admit that it did take some convincing to allow myself the permission to let my obsession be a compass. In the summer of 2009 Heather and I were facilitating a digital storytelling workshop at Northern Michigan University for the Upper Peninsula Writing Project. We were brand new to the genre and we wanted to create digital stories along with the participants. Mike had been home for five years and the war was still finding its way into every piece of writing I composed. Heather and I were discussing potential story ideas and I kept coming back to my idea of trying to link my father’s experience in Vietnam with that of Mike’s in Iraq. I felt overwhelmed and I really thought that my UPWP community of writers were tired of hearing my pieces about the war. I had already crafted countless pieces during writing marathons and other writing events. Heather convinced me that I needed to honor the story. I was reluctant and shared my fear that it would be too long and that I could not create a three to four-minute video. Heather firmly replied, “Tell the story. Take as long as you need to tell it.” She helped me grant myself the permission to follow my writing instinct. Ironically, I thought that once the story took a new form I would be able to leave it behind. I was wrong. Creating a digital story has given me a new audience and many opportunities to share with others. Some stories have their own inertia and find a way to be our witness.
Here is the digital story I created thanks to Heather’s encouragement. I offer it as a tribute on Veteran’s Day to those who protect, serve and sacrifice.