Bearing Witness

by Terry Price

Spalding MFA Alumnus, Fiction 2006

“They say that these are not the best of times
But they’re the only times I’ve ever known”
 – Billy Joel – “Summer, Highland Falls”

Last Friday night we celebrated Christmas dinner at our house. All of the family, save me, were in the kitchen preparing side dishes and dining room preparing the table for the meal. I was on the back patio grilling in silence only found in winter cold. After a bit, I stopped and watched the family here and there through the windows as they went from one room to the other. The darkness outside the house framed light through windows giving me a sense I was watching a play of a family at play. In the night’s quiet, I saw laughter and mouthed conversation…a “come here” wave for assistance with the dinner plates and flatware. There were gesturing hands, aiding an explanation. I became a bystander of my own world.

I thought back to something author Richard Ford said during a recent reading and signing in Nashville. He said after writing the fourth book in the Frank Bascombe series he was asked what the books were about and he responded, “It’s about bearing witness — to stand before someone in a way and help them so that they will feel that they are present by virtue of your attentions.”

A couple of years ago, I was mentoring a writing student at MTSU and we met for coffee. As part of our conversation about his story that took place during 9/11, he said the event and the aftermath were the worst things he had been through and asked if I felt the same way. I thought about it for a moment and had to answer honestly that it hadn’t been. 

“What then,” he asked.

I thought back to my early childhood and remembered being told there were missiles in Cuba aimed at us. There were people who could…who would…send those missiles, killing tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people in their homes or in the shelters, if they had time to get to shelters. There were drills in first grade in which we were taught to sit beneath our desks in case of a nuclear attack. We sat beneath desks and waited and wondered. Despite assurances, why would they prepare us for something that wouldn’t happen? 

There were bombings in a small church in Birmingham that killed little girls. Little girls? I remember trying to understand how this could happen. I had been taught there were good people and bad people in this world but how could anyone be so bad they could kill innocent little girls? 

I remember not being able to go take the bus to downtown Nashville to visit my grandmother who worked as a waitress at the Harvey’s department store lunch counter because of the anger generated over some who asked to be served a meal. There was a bomb thrown into house of the lawyer who represented the students arrested for peacefully “sitting in” at the counters. The bomb exploded and while not killing anyone, it broke over 140 windows from a nearby college dormitory. The bombing resulted in a peaceful parade of citizens, both black and white, who marched to the Nashville courthouse steps and asked the mayor if if he felt it was wrong to discriminate against a person based upon the color of their skin. In spite of pressure from merchants and other groups, without hesitation he answered yes which opened dialogue resulting in the lunch counters being opened for everyone for the first time.

I grew up in a small house and went to bed at night, trying to get to sleep before the ten o’clock news came on the television in the next room. I seldom succeeded and so network reporters told me my childhood bedtime stories of guerrillas in far away lands of Vietnam, stories of the daily battles and of casualties of both Americans and of Viet Cong. When I did fall asleep, I had a recurring nightmare of the movie about the gorilla, King Kong, in which I was always trapped in a room in the Empire State Building and always terrorized by Kong. It was years later, I came to realize the connection between the gorilla, King Kong and the stories of the Viet Cong guerrillas.

There were the Watts riots and fear of whether they would come to Nashville. I remember the assassinations of President Kennedy and then later, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy and the aftermaths. Was this how the world worked? Was this the way of dealing with those with whom you disagreed?

There are a lot of good memories from my childhood as well. As the decade began to wind down, I remember being captivated by the NASA Apollo moon missions but what I remember most about them is that first photo of the entire earth as taken from a distance. I remember how small and alone it looked from space. The only discernible separation or division was between the blue of the water and the greens and browns of land. Otherwise, it was just us. All of us.

No, 9/11 had not been the worst thing I had been through. In a strange sense, I wish it had. As a child, I grew up feeling my only option was to be scared, knowing that there were things from which my parents could not protect me.

But now I continue to understand there are some things I can control, but really not a lot. As a citizen of this world, I can love my little part of the world as much as I can. I can work toward understanding fairness and try cultivate my empathy toward and connection with those I have relationships and dealings. 

But as a writer, I can also bear witness. 

As a creative I can write for others in a way that helps them feel they are present, that they matter, by the very act of my attention. As a writer, I can testify through my words and stories that they are here and they are important. I have the power to ask “what if?” I can write and explore and ask hard questions in a culture that prefers simple answers. 

By bearing witness and putting words to page, we can create complex characters and situations that humanize, that create fertile ground for recasting conversations and give opportunities for dialogue otherwise silenced. Good writing can foster understanding by generating empathy that can soften barriers between and among us.

“All life is sorrowful” is the first Buddhist saying, which sounds incredibly pessimistic. But it is sorrowful. Sorrow has always been here and shall always be. In living, however, we get to decide whether we are going to be fully engaged in this life with all of its joys and in spite of the sorrows. In writing, we get to decide whether we will bear witness to both the sorrows and the joys. Even if we cannot eliminate the sorrows, we can cast light on that which creates sorrow. We can bring recognition to it. Where we cannot eliminate sorrow, we can alleviate. While we may not change this world, we can foster change. Where we cannot remove injustice, we can expose and ask why it exists.

As creatives we must live in this world, with all of its sorrows, but we are also called to bear witness. We are called to write such that the joys and sorrows have meaning, that those who experience the sorrows have voice and their lives have meaning. As writers, we must be present in this world and by our attentions, we affirm the presence of the otherwise invisible and unheard. We are their witnesses. We also testify joy exists and hope is worth something, even when it is the only thing left. 

Sometimes I am in the house making and sharing meals. But, as a writer, I must remember to step outside to observe, to process, then to write. As much as at any time in history, this world needs the hearts and voices of the artists to bear witness, to tend the embers of conscience and connection, of fairness and justice. Through my writing, these things become more real to me as well. By bearing witness I become more present in my own world and in our world. I become more aware and the voices of those whose livelihoods depend on the cultivation of fear and dissent begin to wane and, consequently, my voice increases as my fear diminishes. 

It is a new year and a new world. There will be new challenges and new dreams. It is another opportunity for the artist to see and create, to live and explore. This time is not of our choosing but it is our time. There are people and lands and ideals and injustices awaiting to be seen, waiting for understanding. This is not the time of their choosing either, yet it is their time as well. We do not choose our time but we choose what we do with our time. We are part of this global family. We all come from the same stardust. It is our responsibility and our our joy to participate in the fractious, frustrating, challenging, fulfilling things we call living. If we are to experience the eternal, we shall do it here and now by being full engaged, by getting our hands dirty and our cheeks bruised, but by also getting our wounds tended and our hearts loved. 

Then it is our time to go to our desks and pick up our pens and write.

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4 thoughts on “Bearing Witness

  1. Thank you, Terry, for reminding me why I write. As writers, we must first bear witness with our full attention before we can evoke empathy. A powerful essay.

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    1. Many kind thanks, dear Mary. I appreciate it. I write these things for myself…to remind myself of things. But if they resonate with other writers…well, that’s about as good as it gets.

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  2. Terry, your words just took my breath away. By letting go, by accepting that life is tragic and beautiful and fragile and something we can’t possible control or understand, we do gain something more. Telling and writing stories allows us to make some sense of this crazy, random planet. I thank you for this. It’s a tough world out there, and your essay brought me back to a place of comfort, out of the cold and into the warmth of knowing we writers live a life of purpose.

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