ames, iowa | interviewed 2-12-2002
photo by Michael Kreiser
It was September 8, 2001 and I was attending a cocktail party in New York City. The invitation had instructed the guests to come in "festive" attire. We sipped champagne in crystal glasses served on silver trays, the women's gold bracelets clinking together on their wrists, the men's gold cufflinks brushing past the poached salmon to the caviar. We balanced our china plates on our laps, admiring the collection of outsider art gracing the walls of this three story brownstone. The rough-cut paint strokes of the grassroots pieces balanced the lines of the finely-coifed hairdos of the host and hostess.
I wandered out into the courtyard, a garden filled with the last blooms of fall flowers. I smiled and chatted and made small talk. I found myself back in the living room, laughing and joking with a couple of friends. It was the fiftieth birthday of the guest of honor, a scholar of the Holocaust. The room was filled with the sons and daughters of survivors of Nazi Germany. We clapped and sang "Happy Birthday." The champagne glasses clicked. All the candles were blown out.
A thin, wiry man in his mid-sixties approached me, staring me straight in the eye, his hand holding my cheek.
"My name is Jack," he said, his lips curling up in a smile. "You appear to be a happy person. . ."
"What I want to know is this: If you had a big disappointment in life, what would you do?"
"Ah, I've had many disappointments. You just deal with them," I said.
"No." Jack's voice took on a tone of insistence. "I mean if disaster struck right here this week, where would you turn?"
"Well, I . . ."
"No, I mean it," Jack said. "In a time of total chaos, where would you go for solace, where would you look for help?"
I sighed and thought for a moment. "I'd look for some kind of connection."
"Connection to what?"
"To home, to family . ."
"What if you had no family?"
"To the world of art, then."
"If the ship were going down, you'd cling to this?" Jack motioned to a piece of sculpture, placing his glass down on its pedestal.
"Then I'd look beyond the world of art."
"You actually believe in a beyond?
Jack shook his head. "Do you know how many people there are out there who are searching for an answer to this question?"
"What did you say your name was?" I asked.
"Jack. Just call me Jack," the man said and walked away.
It was New York City, September 8, 2001, and since that time I've been looking for those connections.
copyright © 2001 Mary Swander | All Rights Reserved
Iowa is a good place to write. We actually, in our weird way, support writers. We've always had a writing tradition here. Lots of times, it's turned into writers in exile, and that's the tradition in the Midwest: that you start out here and then you move away, and you write about thinking back. But I saw that as an early writer, and wanted to make a different kind of commitment to staying here and seeing what the issues were. You never know what's going to happen to your life, but it's only when you're in a place long enough that you can do anything in terms of the folklore, knowing the character of the people, improving the environment. There are certain issues you can't address if you only live in a place a year and then you move, or five years, and that's basically what we do in our culture these days. I actually have a unique perspective having been here probably 40 of my 50 years.
I just got back from New York the day before, and so I was just horrified. I've been in the World Trade Center a number of times. There's a Borders Bookstore that was in the World Trade Center where I've given readings, bought books, all this stuff. I've been to the top doing the tourist thing. And I knew the area. I go to New York, like, twice a year, and so it was real to me. And then the Pentagon thingI lived in Washington, D.C., and I knew exactly where that was, too, and how that was going to affect people.
I had to teach from 7 to 10 that night. I just went in and said, Okay, we're going to have a moment of silence and just try to assimilate what's happened today. And I just let the students talk about it. It was one of those things where you find out how interconnected we all are, and so they had a lot of relatives, friends, and everything there. We did manage to talk about some poems, but it was a tough night.
I was in New York the weekend before the attack, and through a total fluke, I ended up at this fancy, fancy party. The guest of honor was a Holocaust scholar, and so the whole party was filled with offspring of Holocaust survivors and so forth. I was having a really good time, and this little wiry man came up to me, and we were having a conversation. And all of a sudden he turns to me and he says, "I want to know if disaster would strike tomorrow, if you had a real tragedy in your lifethis week," he said"where you would turn for solace." And, of course, I thought we were in the context of the Holocaust. And two days later, we were in a completely different context, although related. And it was just one of those prophetic moments. I was like, "What is your name?" And he was like, "Call me Jack," and he walked away. I think I thought about it on the plane. I thought, Wow, that was really interesting. Then I saw that second plane go into the towers, and I thought, Whoaaaa I wonder where Jack is this morning.
The good part about September 11th, if there are any positive things that can come out of it, is that a lot of people have said, "I've reorganized my priorities, and I really think about what matters to me now, and I want to do something with my life." Because we just get into this workaday mode where we get through another day, we get through another day, and then our life's over and we haven't had any fun, we haven't accomplished any of the goals that we've wanted, we haven't spent time with our families. People are starting to say, Hey, there's something else I want to do here.
September 11th is really complicated politically. I'd like to do some kind of journalism piece about that sense of rattling our cages in terms of our complacency. It happened for a reason. I mean, that's the thingwe just can't have these newscasters going, "Why do they hate us?" Well, duh! And I want to be careful the way I put this, because the people that did it, did an evil, horrible thing and they are really off their tracks. But, America has a perspective that enrages a lot of people.
I think it's given everybody a deeper sense of nationalism, but nationalism cuts two ways. Nationalism unites people, and allows people the unification to get things done, but it also separates you from others and creates wars and those kinds of things.
Mary Swander was born in Carroll, Iowa in 1950, and grew up in the nearby town of Manning and later in Davenport, Iowa. She has two older brothers.
She began college at Georgetown University, but finished an English degree at the University of Iowa, coming back because her mother was dying of cancer. She earned her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. She was involved in a variety of pursuits for several years, including becoming a certified and licensed practitioner of therapeutic massage. She began teaching English at Iowa State University, Ames, in 1986.
She has published several booksnonfiction, memoir, poetryand edited three books. Her most recent nonfiction book is The Desert Pilgrim (Viking), out in Spring 2002. She also has published individual poems, essays, short stories, and articles in several national magazines and journals.
She lives and writes in Ames and Kalona, Iowa, and still teaches at Iowa State.