Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tragedy, Melancholy and Control

"Mama, why did the Titanic sink?"

"Because it hit an iceberg."

"I know that. But why did it sink?"

"Do you mean how?"

"Yeah. How?"

I've had this conversation numerous times with Ethan lately. Yes, right now the Titanic is big around here.

Interestingly, Anna hit a Titanic phase with a bunch of her friends at exactly the same age. And I think she discovered the story the same way Ethan did -- via the Magic Treehouse book series. I love the books because honestly, they are the only other chapter books aside from the Chronicles of Narnia Ethan is interested in reading. Plus, they've broadened his world by introducing him to a number of historical events. Now we're getting questions like, "Which came first, the Revolutionary or the Civil War?" and Ethan is starting to really, really long for some kind of time machine to whisk him away to other lands and other times.

The other day, at his request, I picked up some books about the Titanic from the library. Ethan proceeded to race through them, looking mostly at the pictures. At first Dan and I were foolishly waiting for the cliché -- for Ethan to start memorizing esoteric facts about the Titanic, maybe spouting off how many feet long or high the ship was or how many tons of coal it took to keep the ship going.

But no, Ethan is not interested in the facts and the engineering and much as he is the tragedy.

Oh, I know this so well. I am one who has always been drawn to melancholy and drawn to disasters. I have never quite been able to articulate why.

When those amazing specials come on the History Channel, "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," the ones with chilling home movies in color of people growing up in the era of Hitler, I watch with my mouth wide open in utter fascination and complete horror.

I had my own Titanic phase for a while when I was not much older than Ethan. I got out books from the library and cried as I read about the ship tilting higher and higher while the band played on with "Nearer My God to Thee." I could see it all in my head. It was just so sad.

Back when I was in 9th grade the country was observing the 25th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, and I went on a JFK kick. I read every conspiracy theory and watched every retrospective. I became well-versed in the Magic Bullet Theory and the grassy knoll, the Zapruder film and the Texas School Book Depository. But more than the controversy, I was most fascinated by the pictures of JFK and Jackie arriving in Dallas, smiling, unknowing what awaited them there.

9/11. I can tell you the first plane hit at 8:46. I can tell you the flight numbers and exact routes of each plane, when and how the towers fell. This all seems very autistic of me. But sometimes, when I think about 9/11, I remember spilling Dunkin' Donuts coffee on myself that day and being annoyed, and the video shoot we had for a work project that morning. We were filming residents at the hospital where I worked, going about their day. I watched the B-roll after in that same sense of fascination, horror, and sadness. Everyone was just living an ordinary Tuesday morning, having no idea what was going to happen.

"Mamma, what if the Titanic never sunk?" Ethan asked in the car the other day. And then, earnestly, "I wish I had a time machine." Not only has he been reading the Magic Treehouse books, in which they travel back in time to various historical events via a time machine, but we've also been watching the Back to the Future movies.

"If I had a time machine," he continued, "I'd go back to before 11:40 p.m. when the Titanic hit the iceberg and stop it from happening."

"Where can I get a time machine, mamma?" I gently told him there aren't really time machines.

"Yes there are! I really want one! There has to be one!"

I remembered the fascinating and startling book by Stephen King about a man who discovers a portal to go back in time and makes it his goal to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK.

I realized that maybe, this whole interest in tragedies, for both me and for Ethan, had something to do with control.

We memorize the twists and turns that led up to terrible times and feel the sting of "If only..."

"Why didn't the Titanic have more lifeboats?!" Ethan keeps demanding.

We roll the questions around in our minds. Some of us think about the sequence of events and long to jump into our time machines with the knowledge we have now, to right egregious wrongs. Sometimes all we can do is jump into our dreams.

"Mama, I had a dream last night the Titanic was sinking, but it was daytime," Ethan told me yesterday.

"Where you scared?"

"Yeah, and the ship was tilting down and down. But then I woke up."

Sometimes I hope Ethan will not go my route and will not spend too much time in the land of tragedy and What Might Have Been. But then I wonder if it's such a bad thing. Maybe it's better to learn early to embrace that we are very much human. We are not ultimately in control. We don't always know why. We can't always change things. Weighty topics for a child. But if we can learn to sit with that uncertainty and still find joy, and peace, life can still be beautiful.

1 comment:

Bear said...

I tend to lean towards the melancholy as well. It's not bad :-) . Have you guys heard of the book series "I Survived ..." My son loves them. They are stories told about different real world events (tragedies) told from the perspective of a young boy.