I live in a comfortable old apartment building, which squats like an elderly giant with stooped shoulders on one of Portland's main thoroughfares. My building was built earlier in the last century, and so sports lovely old built in bookcases and doorframes the likes of which are never seen in more modern constructions. My neighbors range from hip, urbane young sophisticates to awkward, middle-aged bachelors to scruffy, larval gutterkids to disabled, shuffling spinsters.
Since I live on the "garden" level (aka the sub-bunker level), I get an ankle's eye view of everyone coming and going, and some opportunity to extrapolate livelihoods and narrative arcs from feeble scraps like shoe-brands and grocery bag labels and the timbre of solemn or ecstatic voices. A short, round bus driver lives three floors above; he parks his neat, sensible little Corolla expertly every evening and minces his steps into the building. Pale, fashionable women sail past my windows, glowing in second-hand glamor and studded belts, crashing through the doors laughing, always. Gray young men in their fading jeans run past with their dogs and their watch caps, urgently smoking cigarettes and barely making rent. Babies sing through the ventilation well windows, echoing in the bathrooms and kitchens. I witness their entrances and exits, their remarkabilities and their quotidian dross, with all the intimate detachment of yet another silent built-in fixture in this aging structure, no more intrusive than the bookcase or the doorknob. My windows are angled such that when the blinds are half-opened, I am invisible. I see how eloquent the angles of hips and the fluid weaves of arms and legs can be, from one body to another. The body language of those who believe only they can read each other.
This morning I noticed new graffiti on the exterior wall of my apartment, roughly corresponding to the area above where my head lies on my bed. The marks are densely tangled and sharp, like a nest of thorns. As I read reports of the calamities in South Asia, I think of these tangled and sharp lives all around me, and the unthinkable numbers become only just marginally more conceivable. This is a small thing, but important, for me. Poignant anecdotes, individual stories of survival and loss seem exceedingly impertinent in the face of these "myriad of myriads", as Gibbon would describe it. But I also feel that I must fight against the urge to simplify things into the abstraction of anonymously vast numbers; this is the paradox, that enormity can only be dealt with in its totality.
Perhaps the tendency, in our culture, to simplify and generalize, is what lies at the heart of the UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland's remarks about the "stinginess" of the more developed countries in their relief efforts. The stinginess of our aid reflects the myopia of our vision; we cannot widen the scope of our assistance because we cannot wrap our minds around what has happened. I remember how it used to be said that my country would have to suffer some comparable degree of trauma to what the rest of the world has experienced, at one time or another, during this last calamitous century, before a people like us could begin to understand the problems of what goes on in less fortunate countries; but unfortunately, even after experiencing some extraordinarily traumatic times, our myopic ignorance persists, perhaps willfully so.
The most I can imagine is the swirl of people living above and around me, swept in a sharply tangled mess of thorns and ocean currents. I can only barely visualize the floating shoals of grocery bags and orphaned shoes and the awfully silent voices. These slender limits of our words and our hearts are like vulnerable islands in the vastness of the sea.