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Looking Upwards into the Night

by Frank Gruber

Saturday night the moon set and the desert sky near Twentynine Palms was pitch black, except for so many stars we couldn't distinguish the constellations.

Life can be like that, too. Black, but for the stars.

Grief. Anger. Fear. I do not want to go to the mall. I do not want to fly. I do not want to buy stock. (Or sell it, either.)

I am in mourning.

To be honest, and I write this with one hand firmly touching wood, I have little personal experience with grief. Of course I have had relations and friends who have died, but there has always been someone close to me who lost more than I did, whose grief was deeper.

It is easier to grieve when you have someone to comfort.

Nor did I know anyone who died September 11. Santa Monica, of course, was not spared. Two of our residents are gone, and one local businessman. And I know people back east who lost family, friends and colleagues.

I won't pretend my grief is anything like that suffered by those who lost loved ones so piteously, but I have never been in a funk like this before.

America is not a good place in which to mourn, not, at least, in these modern days. We scorn the rituals of our various traditions that once acknowledged loss -- black clothes, solemn processions, wakes, "sitting shiva."

People receive a few days of "bereavement leave" and then we expect them to come back to work, to "cope" and, we hope, to find "closure." In fast-paced lives, mourning is a luxury.

Six or seven thousand of us are murdered and we wonder what it will do to the GNP.

Perhaps there are reasons we reduce the rituals of grief to their vestigial parts. In general, people die more "fairly" than they used to -- they live longer and more often die of natural causes -- and grief is directly proportional to the unfairness of death. When people live long lives, the bereaved can often honestly temper their grief by reflecting on a good life lived well.

Many people die after long illnesses. Death comes as a relief, mourning done in long goodbyes, or dissipated in long, heroic campaigns to marshal medicine against death.

I have visited aged relations who were ready for death, and I hope that I and those I love live long enough to feel the same.

Still, emotions haven't changed. Death has not become any less inexplicable the many thousands of years people have been contemplating it. All religions try to explain the essential unfairness of death, the unfairness of sentient beings finding themselves living on a beautiful planet, but for only a short time.

Despite the efforts of religions and even of secular philosophers to explain (or to explain away) this unfairness, there is a gap between one's emotions and any explanation, and within that gap lies grief.

We must grieve, especially when so many die, so unfairly.

Naturally, we look for glimmers of hope. We celebrate the heroes. We reflect on the good that people did for each other, and the good that people continue to do for each other. We try to comfort the bereaved, and if we don't know any to comfort, we send money to help the families. Those who knew the lost, remember them for all the good in their too-short lives.

We look upwards, into the night, for stars.


In fact, however, I was not in the desert Saturday night looking for solace, although I found some. I was there to see a movie. The Museum of Contemporary Art was screening the greatest western, John Ford's "The Searchers," in a drive-in theater located in terrain reminiscent of the landscape of the film.

In "The Searchers" John Wayne plays a dark, unreconstructed ex-Confederate officer, Ethan Edwards, who "still has his sabre" and hates Indians, Comanches in particular.

After Comanches raid his brother's Texas homestead, killing all but the two daughters, whom they abduct, Edwards seeks revenge. The Comanches rape and kill the older daughter, but Edwards searches five years for the younger one, Debbie. Once "little Debbie" would have grown to be sexually mature and one with the Indians, however, Edwards' racial hatred is so great that his purpose becomes killing Debbie, not saving her.

My family had purchased our tickets to the screening long before September 11. We drove to Twentynine Palms to see the movie expecting to escape a little, but I will never see "the Searchers" again without thinking about our recent calamity.

Imagine that the Edwards homestead is the World Trade Center, and the Comanches -- "childish savages" in the words of the minister of the gospel who is also the captain of the local company of Texas Rangers -- are the holy warriors crashing airplanes into the peaceful symbols of our relentless progress.

Bereaved, the community assembles to bury the dead. But Edwards cuts short the mourning. He wants the Rangers to get going right away to catch the Indians and kill them -- even if that means risking the lives of the captured girls. He wants revenge.

The rangers go, but not before a woman, the voice of the "Texicans" on the edge of civilization, admonishes Edwards: "If the girls are dead, Ethan, don't let the boys waste their lives in vengeance!"

One of the "boys" she refers to, her son, dies, the other, Martin Pauley, a "quarter breed Cherokee," accompanies Edwards on his five-year search, but with the purpose of finding the girl and bringing her back alive.

I won't review all the heartache and loss that flow from the rage of Edwards, including the death of innocents, nor reflect on the moment of self-confrontation and redemption when Edwards realizes that he is as savage as any Comanche. Suffice it to say that the point of the film is that the pursuit of justice is more sustaining than hate-fueled obsession.

But watching the movie for the umpteenth time, sitting outside in the desert seeing the familiar images flash against the black sky, I saw something I hadn't seen before.

Edwards should have taken time to mourn before setting out on his quest.

Grief. Anger. Fear. Hatred. Each of these emotions amplifies the others, but if we give ourselves some time, some time without expectations, some time to grieve, these emotions will coalesce into something different. Into resolve.

Deep into the search, but only at the beginning, Martin asks Edwards if they are "beat." No, he says, "we'll find them in the end, I promise you that. We'll find them just as sure as the turning of the earth."

And we will. Justice is a journey.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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