Tuesday, September 02, 2008

LIFE AFTER


She phones me from her mother's house and we talk every day. This is better than nothing. She says she has fallen out of love with me. She says she is confused. She says she feels lost, sort of like the way she felt when she was younger. I told her that everybody feels lost when they are young. But she says there is a difference. She tells me that at least when she was younger she felt lost in her own special way. Now she just feels lost like everyone else.
—pages 137–138, Life After God by Douglas Coupland, from the short story "Gettysburg"

Bush refers to his time in office as "a joyous experience," a phrase that seems jarring. A satisfying experience, pursuing important goals maybe, or a vital experience, to be at the center of so many historic moments. But joyous? With all the heartache, the wars, the political attacks? "You know, obviously there's some good days and some bad days," Bush tried to explain at a forum in Missouri in May. "I feel so strongly about my principles and my values, and I'm an optimistic guy."
—page 30, "The Final Days" by Peter Barker, from The New York Times Magazine, August 31, 2008

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It started with an observation. The stepmother-in-law looked at the illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and commented that it was very intriguing. So we peeked inside to peruse his other illustrations that accompany an article by Peter Barker on the final days of the presidency of George W. Bush.

Therein was a fascinating illustration of President Bush floating on a pink air mattress in a pool of brilliant blue water, hands clasped on his chest, staring up at us (above left). The image immediately resonated with me. I thought that it was a play on the jacket photo by Robert Earnest that adorns the cover of Douglas Coupland's short story collection Life After God (above right). But, I guess I didn't quite remember the photograph as it actually appears, for even though the illustration of Bush echoes the photograph, it simply is not what I remembered.

I am unsure where the image I imagined actually resides, if it even does, but that is somewhat beside the point. The illustration of Bush was so intense and so strong that it set off a small chain of strange coincidences and explorations.

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Having a very intense interest in Abraham Lincoln at the moment, especially after bearing witness to his monument in Washington DC and visiting the Manassas battlefield, I was immediatley drawn to the short story "Gettysburg" in Life After God when I perused its table of contents. I knew that the story had nothing to do with Lincoln other than the association of him with the city and his Civil War era speech. Nonetheless, I found myself reading it again and experiencing the loss of relationship that it relates.

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The narrator of "Gettysburg" states that his estranged wife "says she doesn't want us to become dreadful people who do dreadful things to each other because there will be no one to forgive us." What happens when that level of hopelessness rears its ugly head? If there is no one to forgive, then it must truly be "life after God." And, if there is no God, then there is also no judgment. No judgment means no law. No law means lawlessness and chaos. Chaos means that everyone is on their own. It seems to be a brutal way to navigate the world. Alone. Lonely.

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I like to believe otherwise. I like to grasp on to hope, to God, to love. I just don't readily admit it.

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That seems rather optimistic for me, especially as I watch marriages of people that I care about collapse—a relative, a neighbor, a couple of friends. The wives of these friends, like the wife of the "Gettysburg" narrator, have each declared that they are lost, empty, searching for something that they can no longer seek with a partner. They have declared themselves devoid of love for the person that they took vows to love in perpetuity.

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And, what of President George W. Bush? It seems that he is also mourning the loss of his "wife." The country of which he is commander in chief has essentially turned its back on him and walked away from their relationship. I can't say that I don't blame America for walking away from him and his policies. I can claim to disagree with him on most issues. But, it still seems like a relationship in collapse on a macrocosmic scale. And, it still seems to me that it is somewhat unfaithful and unfair and therefore sad.

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And, what of President Abraham Lincoln? He seemed to also have been left behind in his marriage to America. She tore herself in two and cannibalized herself, while he looked on, trying to keep her as one person. Both halves seemed to hate him. In the midst of that hatred, he clung fast to his beliefs, and delivered some of the most memorable, amazing, and fascinating speeches and writings in American history—the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, his Second Inaugural Address, among others.

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Bush, in my estimation, is no Lincoln. He is, however, a president who has been abandoned by the one he loves, one who no longer loves him. Therefore, my heart grieves for him, even though I don't like his policies.

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Is there life after God? Perhaps. If so, then it seems that it will be lonely. Do we have the fortitude to peer into the mysteries of the universe and survive? Or, will we destroy ourselves before we even begin to glimpse those mysteries? The latter seems more likely to me. Chaos, xenophobia, inferiority complexes. It only takes one bully with no fear of his or her own death, with a nuclear weapon in hand, to set off a chain of events from which there may be no turning back.

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Personally, I hope we don't find it necessary to really explore the question. I would prefer that we just keep God in the equation.

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Is there life after a marriage collapses? Perhaps. But I imagine that the person left behind is never quite the same. I imagine them to be haunted by the questions of what could have been. I am sure that the person who leaves, who claims the love to be at an end, is also never the same, is also haunted, although they may claim otherwise.

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Is there life after the presidency? Perhaps. Many presidents continue to build upon their legacy after their years in office. Speaking engagements. International diplomacy. Political party power brokers. Elder statesmen. I can only hope that President Bush will think long and hard about the damage he has done to the political process, the environment, the law, the people who elected him, the soldiers he sent into Iraq, the Constitution during his time in office. I can only hope that he will repent and receive forgiveness for his national sins.

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The imagined image still resonates. It still has life. It is powerful because it is vague yet intense. It is the cover of Life After God and it is not.

2 comments:

Kimberlee said...

Very well written. You gave lots of thoughts to chew on. I really liked how you used the comparison of a falling-apart marriage. It almost makes him seem human.

Troy said...

For me, that is the frustrating piece of George W. Bush's presidency. I can almost feel sorry for him, but then I remember all of the horror and pain he has brought to his constituency — environmental rape; the war in Iraq, with its attendant casualties and wounded soldiers and civilians; a collapsed economy; cronyism; et cetera.