Time for healing

By - Oct 17th, 2008 02:52 pm
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Last week I was alarmed to hear on NPR that a college classmate, Taylor Luck, had gone missing in Jordan with his friend Holly on their vacation (!) into the tumultuous northern regions of the country.

I was shocked — and worried. What had happened? Would he be found alive? Or at all?

Just days earlier I had remembered David Byrd Felker, another Beloit College student who disappeared in Ecuador the summer before I started my freshman year. Obviously, I never knew David, but at a school of just about 1100 students, everyone I met had known him in some way, and his loss was deeply felt — it was almost in the air, that first year. Thinking about him, I did a search and found a beautifully written piece in the Journal Sentinel including excerpts from his journal about his travels.

I didn’t sleep well the night that I found out about Taylor, but in the morning, news broke that he was alive and in custody in Damascus after being arrested trying to cross the Syrian border illegally. It was a relief. I sighed and moved on. The 24-hour news cycle is grating, exhausting, and to keep it from breaking you, it’s imperative to learn to depersonalize. But here was a story I couldn’t process, absorb and discard. I knew this guy. My Facebook news feed came alive with status messages from Beloit alum about the news, links to the story, photos and video clips of Taylor, a jocular, almost boorish young man, tossing off rude stories about Jordan. It was a rally, a sort of digital vigil, and when the news of his fate hit the wires, we erupted into a chorus of “goddammit, Taylor. What an idiot.” And then we moved on. In six weeks, no one will remember the blip on the radar about the American journalists who pushed their luck and came out alive.

But what if something worse had happened? What if Taylor Luck had become another Byrd Felker — another casualty of the intrepid, intellectually curious and recklessly adventurous students that Beloit graduates? What if Taylor had become another specter on the tally of untimely deaths I’ve been sadly keeping this year — a friend from Turkey killed in a car accident, a high school classmate found dead in the woods in Oklahoma, Rock Dee, my uncle?

I’ve been thinking a lot, in these last rapid-fire weeks, about healing. It’s been a hard year, and I’ve become steadily engrossed in the strange process that happens in every human mind and heart when faced with loss and sadness.

At the Milwaukee Art Museum now through January 4 is Act/React, a show that includes a tremendous piece by Brian Knep, “Healing Pool,” that invites peaceful contemplation and a sense of comfort about how things heal. The size of a swimming pool, the glowing floor is like an organism. Walk across it and it will spread open in your wake, then come back together as it “heals” — but it’s never quite the same; every track leaves a scar. The most genius part of its programming, I think, is that every 45 minutes to an hour, it takes a big, pink breath, and it resets. I saw Brian on a recent visit, watching quietly from a bench by the wall. “I’m just a fly today,” he said, witnessing vistors’ natural reactions. At the media preview he told me that the programming was simple, and designed to work the way things work in nature. It’s a patient, meditative experience.

Last week we took a trip to the Milwaukee Public Museum, even though we were in the thick of production, for the media preview of Titanic, an immersive, emotionally affecting exhibition that surprised all of us. The show winds through meticulously constructed recreations of the ship’s cabins, cafes, meeting spaces and even the boiler room, complete with evocative music and sound. But the real appeal is the selection of painstakingly excavated and preserved artifacts from the submerged Titanic, including glassware, still-full Champagne bottles, shoes and items of clothing, paper money, jewelry, sink basins, chandeliers and ship hardware. The exhibition goes to great lengths to document the provenance of each artifact which lends an edge to the show that keeps the story deeply human and strikingly sympathetic. To recoup after the show, we got in touch with our inner kids and spent an hour finding the rattlesnake buttons, buying candy at the general store and strolling through the butterfly garden, where we actually saw a butterfly pop out of its chrysalis and shake its new wings.

And on Sunday afternoon I saw The Persians at Renaissance Theatreworks. The oldest surviving play in Western literature, Aeschylus’ brutal but lyrical telling of the massive Persian army’s defeat at Athens in the Greco-Persian wars is a chilling homily on the hubris of war and empire and the devastation it can wreak. It’s a difficult play, but it’s important, and ultimately cathartic. What is left for the Persians but to grieve? And to heal?

Maybe it was the epic collapse of the reign of embattled Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who resigned a convicted felon in September, that started all of this. “I don’t know why,” I said to my friend John when he called to share the news, “but I’m really sad.” Kwame had been screwing shit up around the city for years — early in our friendship, John and I sent a pranky email to Kwame’s PR manager asking if we might be invited to one of his storied parties at the Manoogian Mansion — but he was young, vibrant and forceful, literally towering and gorgeously dressed, embodying at the start of his term all of the broken but tenuous hope of a bitter, struggling city. Even the city’s brightest hopes are bound to fall. It seemed, cruelly, like destiny.

“It’s okay,” John said to me. “It’s time for healing.”

24:HRS MILWAUKEE: THE MOVIE

This is a late shot, but I just have to share it with you. Our 24-hour tour of the city was a grand spree — boat rides, home-brewed beer, dancers in the Valley at dusk, rich wine at the Iron Horse and rowdy partying at Wolski’s. And then some! Here’s a little video we made about what the city felt like at four in the morning after a hard 13 hours of touring, no sleep and a little too much to drink.

Categories: VITAL

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