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It's Nelly's World

Concern File

alec vanderboom

What is important?

It depends on where you sit and what moment you ask the question.

If you are struggling with something--and who isn't struggling with something; I used to believe everyone else was happy and confident, but now that I'm older and wiser, I know that anxiety is pretty much everyone's little companion--it's hard for the worry du jour not to become the world. The front page of the paper is just that: paper, thin, and replaced in twenty-four hours by another sheet with grisly color photos taken in some other world. One so terrible it can't be believed.

The most powerful biological urge in the undamaged psyche is the care of one's offspring: it is this way for you, for me, and for the milk cow whose calf is taken from her and for whom the anguish is vocal, and complete. It is the same for all parents.

The Somali people are stumbling toward Dadaab, Kenya, on journeys of more than a month, to reach what is now the world's largest refugee camp. They are trying to escape drought-induced starvation, and their children are falling by the wayside. Can you imagine this? Your small child, malnourished, thirsty, forced to walk day after day until he can go no farther, and he drops. The reversal of nature's order turns the universe on its side, and everything falls off into clattering ruin.

The magnitude, and the raw agony, of such a situation makes the privileged feel paralyzed, at least for a moment. A little while ago, it was Japan: and we couldn't wrap our brains around that, either. Although there were a lot of benefit concerts to aid that ravaged country. I haven't heard much about Japan recently. I also haven't heard about many charity art auctions for Somalia. Maybe it's too big. It's been going on for too long. It's too far away.

First their animals starved. You can do an image search--"Somalia drought" is all you need to type in, and 628,000 results later you are drowning in the horror. Small children whose bloated bellies over spindly legs and empty eyes define the word "wrong." The adults who know what's coming for them, unstoppable, and they show it in fearful faces. Goats and camels, skeletons with hair, some still walking, most only a few minutes away from the final groan, the drop to the knees that will be their last. The people, the people, ground down to bare life. Nothing more.

I will not point out the awful disparity between our lives, even those Americans who are struggling in this economy that assures so much to so few, and tells the rest to go to hell, and people who are dying by the million because they have no water and no food. It's a cliche to mention that I just bought whatever I felt like buying (watermelon, bread, strawberries, olives) at the grocery store, and still I have worries that keep me awake some nights. What is wrong with us? Do we not do anything because we don't care? Or do we not care because we can't do anything?

It's a messed-up world where those who have too much can't even reach those who have nothing. And are about to fall over the edge.

Yesterday at the farmer's market (the line for felafel sandwiches, $8 each, was about twenty-five people long), I ran into an acquaintance I hadn't seen in a year or so. A brilliant writer. She smiled and told me I looked wonderful: "It's so nice to see you. How are you?" I told the truth: really well. But the question returned caused a strange look to pass over her face, even though she said, "I'm pretty well." Maybe it was the half-beat pause before the adjective. "Pretty well?" I asked. "But not great, right?" All of a sudden her visage collapsed, the happy-to-see-you mask. "My daughter's just been diagnosed with cancer."

The universe is tilting for her, and things are beginning to slide to one side, precedent to falling off. We would do anything for our children. It is an imperative written into our cells. Their survival is our concern. The only one that matters.