I have read many books that have caused me to stop and really process, books that have changed, or educated me, caused me to look at the world in a broader way. Few books have made me sit down immediately after turning that last page to try and record thoughts, to make significant meaning stick. I finished The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers three minutes ago and here I am writing about it.
First, I don't want to say that I recommend this book. But I do think it’s a necessary read. For weeks and weeks, I’d see it as I passed the Lucky Day bookshelf at the library. I’d pick it up, read the inside jacket description, and quickly put the book down. Some subjects are too difficult to encounter. For some reason, on the third or fourth time I picked up the book, I flipped to the copyright page and read the quote that begins the narrative, “To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.” Sir Thomas Brown. Something in that quote hooked me and made me sit down and read this tragic and beautiful and awful story about youth, evil, friendship, ugliness and war. And I will not look at war through the same narrow eyes of my misunderstandings. I won’t understand, but hopefully I will be more understanding.
As I write this, my husband is checked in for his flight from Bagram Airfield to Dubai, a flight that will eventually bring him home. He is currently on the doorstep of war, although he will be the first to tell you that his job is very far removed from actual combat. And we used to live in the midst of that same war, for which we’ll forever be asked, “Was it scary living in Kabul?” To this day I have not come up with a satisfactory answer to that question. I always pause and think long and hard and say, “Not really” and tell a story about the week before we moved home and got caught up in a spontaneous protest while traveling to a base to ship back action packers full of stuff. It seems like that’s what people want to hear. That it was daring and risky, but also safe and mundane. We didn’t see the war; we saw the effects of war in families missing members, bodies missing limbs, displacement, uncertainty, tanks, potholes, and the occasional booms, pops and lockdowns. Our life consisted of varying levels of red, orange, and yellow, predicting the possibility of danger. We were there, but we weren’t a part of it.
My closest experience to the war while living in the war wasn’t one of the many times we visited a base to get a Blizzard at DQ (yes, you read that right) or to visit the base bazaar full of prayer rugs with Kalashnikovs and the shape of Afghanistan woven into them. It wasn’t canceling an appointment to get my eyebrows waxed in Shar-e Nau because there had been a suicide bombing at the UN compound. It wasn’t the many sad stories that caused (cause) tears to fall and little bits of my heart to break.
No, my closest experience was a few months after we arrived and a friend’s husband was driving me the less than a mile home from a ladies night at their house to our apartment. It was barely dusk, when you had to squint to see clearly what was approaching. Due to a roadblock near the Uzbek embassy, we popped onto the main road for about 50 meters before swinging back into our neighborhood. And on that road, a large vehicle with extremely bright lights began to flash them rapidly at us. I wouldn’t say it was the nick of time, but we realized it was a military convoy and quickly pulled off the road. As the convoy passed and became clearer in the duskiness of coming night, I’ll never forget making eye contact with the young American, clad in desert browns and protective gear, Oakleys setting atop his helmet, pointing a large gun right at me. His eyes widened as he registered that the passenger in the nondescript Toyota Surf was a very Caucasian woman wearing a chadori. I felt like in that 10 seconds of eye contact I saw 10,000 emotions flicker in those eyes ranging from fear to surprise to expectation. I wonder if he saw those same emotions in my eyes because they were all there. I wonder if he went back to Phoenix or Eggers or whichever base he came from and told people he saw some crazy American lady living outside the wire on Darulaman. Those 10 seconds with a gun pointed at my face and the brief window into the eyes of the person on the other end of the barrel was my closest experience to war. When I think of other moments during our time there, explosions in the sky or in our neighborhood, they all pale in comparison to that encounter.
And as I read this book, The Yellow Birds, I was struck by the distance we all put between ourselves and what we don’t understand, or maybe some of you do understand. . . but I sure don’t. But as I read this book, I was challenged by the many parts of it I could relate to; parts about fear, disappointment, disenchantment, difficulty remembering life before altering moments. As I grappled with similarities between a sad, sometimes heinous story and my normal, sometimes uneventful life, I realized that the distance to understanding is not that far of a leap. I realized that the leap often involves reliving the worst moments in an attempt to find commonality. The main character tells us, “All pain is the same. Only the details are different.” Although it is impossible to know what someone is truly going through without knowing the details, it is possible to bridge that gap through recognizing that the emotions we feel are often the same.
So, pick up this book. Read it. Tell me what you think about it. Be prepared for some serious sadness. Be prepared for some serious f-bombs. Be prepared to want to sit down and ramble away about things that you don’t get but really want to grasp. Be challenged and changed.
I leave you with one of those challenging and changing parts:
There were no bullets with my name on them, or with Murph’s, for that matter. There were no bombs made just for us. Any of them would have killed us just as well as they’d killed the owners of those names. We didn’t have a time laid our for us, or a place. I have stopped wondering about those inches to the left and right of my head, the three-miles-an-hour difference that would have put us directly over an IED. It never happened. I didn’t die. Murph did. And though I wasn’t there when it happened, I believe unswervingly that when Murph was killed, the dirty knives that stabbed him were addressed “To whom it may concern.” Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying. Not even being ordinary.