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Conditions of Absolute Reality

InjuredIn the past three weeks of confronting the situation of the Pakistan Earthquake (admittedly, from the comfort of my own home), I have often been reminded of the opening passage of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Many evenings I have felt when I've gone to bed that I've come a little too close to those conditions of absolute reality. I am having a really hard time with Halloween, for example. Years ago, as a teacher of horror writing, I was nearly impossible to gross out. The class I taught attracted really bright early entrance students who sometimes seemed to make a sport of trying to gross me out, and instead I would say things like, "but wait, is that physically possible? I don't think so. You just can't do that with a can of hairspray."

But here I am at 43, with an 8-year-old son, completely banning anything remotely gruesome from our Halloween celebration. I would like to claim that this is just good parenting, but my aversion goes considerably beyond that. Rather my mind's eye is just too good at visualizing the absolute reality of the situation in certain parts of rural Pakistan. Bad injuries. Untreated for three weeks. No one will sleep indoors for fear of being crushed in their sleep. Aid agencies still having not arrived. When I look at those maps, I'm pretty sure that I know what I'm looking at.

But I hadn't looked at it yet.

Well, this afternoon, I was perusing certain tags in Flickr, looking for live reportage, not just redistribution of press photography. I didn't used to know what three-week-old untreated wounds look like.

Now I know that I had nothing to fear from the manufacturers of fake Halloween gore because they really had no idea, no imagination for just how bad it could be.The photographic point of view is so caring. The lens is smeared not for effect but because the photographer is out in the field under rugged conditions. And the people look so greatful because someone has finally arrived to help them.

By the conventions of blogging, I suppose I ought to link to the pictures. If you go to my Flickr page and paw through the photos of my contacts, you'll find them. But I don't want to make it easy, since they are not, shall we say, lunch safe. I am still adjusting my reality to them.

They don't tell me anything I didn't already know. Rather they point out to me the limits of my own imagination.