There is one movie that forever changed my soul–took a piece of it away–which I did not think a “movie” could do. I was about 12 years old, and the movie was The Exorcist.
Now there is an photograph that has done the same. On Facebook all I could ‘say’ was: “Oh my God. I feel sick and shivering. I don’t know what to do. What can one DO?”
I have a true friend I have never met in person, whose page I saw this image on today. Her name is Onnie Mary Phute, and she lives in Botswana. Onnie is not one to leave you on the precipice. She replied:
“Celia Ingrid Farber, one person at a time reaches the whole world one day, you can change even with your voice, you have been changing lives so, get a warm blanket and look within, you will see, if you were Gates, it would be for the people by the people. He may have good intentions to help but its the opposite of what he wants to achieve. Humans were never made to be speed boats or rockets, they take time and in that time all get well, vaccines are speed and speed kills.”
Onnie is traveling, for our benefit, through the layers of deception, abuse, and soul journey coiled up in an “HIV diagnosis.” On this–especially on the abject refusal to treat her own feelings as invalid, or to reduce herself to scientific cant or code, but rather, to dare address the humanity of it–Onnie is our Solzhenitsyn.
Her landmark essay “Divorcing The Man In The Bottle,” is the piece I am most proud of having published.
I ask that you read it, perhaps a second time, and consider its message, which I find nothing short of stunning.
Tonight my whole body is ransacked by the image of this child. Two days ago I saw the famous photo–similar– of an emaciated child, bent in what appears to be prayer on the ground, as a vulture waits patiently nearby. It is said that the photographer committed suicide a short while later, after winning a Pulitzer Prize. That photo makes it impossible to escape, despair, and I understand him, or I think I do.
This photo: It appears to me she is a girl, our baby–or was a girl, based on the little rope necklaces she has around her neck. I hope she is in heaven, and that she never feels hunger or pain there, and that God himself has placed her on his lap and apologized for the terrible mistake, and that he is distracting her and making her laugh. Maybe her mother is with her. Maybe her whole family. We have no idea where this picture was taken, or when. On Facebook, a rational sounding man said this image should not be used to advocate against vaccines, that’s not “fair.” That this photo must have been taken in a war-zone. And then there was an argument about that.
I had a different thought. Or feeling.
I felt that I wanted to say this: The child is a victim of famine. No food. No real food.
In the West, we too are victims of famine. We have flesh on our bones, often alot of it; But we are famine-stricken nonetheless, emotionally and spiritually. We are right there next to that skeletal girl, with our heads in the ground. We are starving to death. We can’t make a sound. The person next to us only needs one meal, or one glass of water, or one single act of loving warmth directed their way, but we can’t do it. We can not do it because of the extreme and pervasive damage that has been done to us–slowly, over years and years, exterminating our compassion, first of ourselves, then for every other living thing. If there is a way to not feel any empathy, we will find it. If there is not a way, we will find it. This is how we were stunted in childhood.
We are probably the coldest people who have ever lived.
“We look almost happy out in the sun,” writes Tomas Transtromer,” bleeding to death from wounds we know nothing about.”
When Onnie writes to me, sometimes she tells me about poverty, about not having real food, about dying of poverty. And I have not (until tonight) written her back and said: “Onnie, we are too. We are poverty-stricken. Starving. Can I tell you about it?”
She would absolutely listen to me.
Because where Onnie is, there is not the kind of famine that says you can’t hear or empathize with another fellow human being. That kind of poverty has not hit Botswana, or not hit Onnie. And I don’t actually know what Onnie’s poverty is composed of, what its root system is, or what MY poverty is composed of, or what its root system is, but I want so much to discuss this with her.
Why is it that Onnie always has a piece of her spirit and soul to give to me, when she “doesn’t even know me,” and when I stand with my heart almost literally in my hands, like a creature from the road?
Why does Onnie have time and spirit to spare? Why does she make me feel warmer? Why can’t we do that for one another here? Why? Why are we starving?
In families, in marriages, in everything, it has seeped in, spread its spores, this black fungus of indifference.
“I don’t love you. I don’t know why.”
It’s Western famine.
Invisible and deadly.
You’re disconnected, you’re condemned for having feelings in the first place. Nobody wants to hear it. America: The game is to experience nothing, love nobody, and to be proud of it.
Tonight I kiss all three cats on their warm noses and say, “I love you,” out loud, and feed them, a bit too much. I lie down on the floor next to one of them, the famous Jack Mackerel, and place my hand next to his paw, to feel the warmth. I’m pretty sure HE loves me, if nothing else because a) I rescued him from the street and b) we have a silent pact that I shall never castrate him, no matter how much the cat eugenicists bear down on me with their horror stories about how many cats are running around New York in alley ways.
One day I intend to move us all to a peaceful valley where Jack (the only one who has was not “fixed” before i ever met him) can father a small tribe of mini-Jacks. I need to see life beget life and more life. Just a natural order of things.
I am on the floor, with the cats, watching their faces, appreciating their presence more than I can say.
Jacques Brel has put it all into a song, that solves war, famine, and pain. It’s called:
If We Only Had Love (Quand On A Que L’Amour,) and I think it is the most complete and masterful song ever written.
Onnie speaks a language not all can hear. Even writing about somebody very far away who has actual compassion, which is impossible to describe, is difficult and forbidden. But I do wish you would ask me what I mean. Well, let me begin by saying that Onnie never induces emotional famine by those tiny crests, dips, shadows, veiled cruelties, sarcastic salts, short irritations, clipped words, or outright barbarisms that have come to characterize Western communications, even between “old friends.” They should sell protective gear against the way people talk to one another here. It’s as if there has not been love in the soil for 300 years or more.
And I ask myself: Am I exactly the same? Do I induce this feeling if despair in you, friend, whoever you are? Do I make you feel this quiet despair, make you swallow your words and emotions, but especially emotions? Swallowing emotions causes obesity and famine. Am I somebody you would feed, with your actual feelings, or am I the same kind of zombie I repudiate here? I am afraid of the answer but I would face it, hear it, if somebody would just talk to me.
Onnie, I am talking to you. What’s Botswana like, tonight? Tell me about the trees. Tell me what somebody said. I have been to Africa, east, west, central, north, south…and I don’t think I ever heard sarcasm. People speak entirely differently, and it doesn’t cause hunger.
I am getting weaker, by way of obesity, by way of emotional strength that permits everything and responds finally, to nothing. Why does Onnie know how to make me feel loved and valued?
I will never know. I write to her on this night. Onnie? Tell me a story.