I have two things on my mind right now: opera and emotions.
Tonight, due to the gracious encouragement of a new acquaintance, I found myself attending a unique performance, called “Glory Denied” and put on by Houston Grand Opera and HGOco. The main character is a man in the Vietnam War, who becomes a prisoner of war for nine years, and then eventually returns to the USA. The story, essentially, is how his life falls apart throughout it all. It is sad and tragic, and the music only makes it more so. The setting of the performance being an old airplane hangar that has turned into a museum added to the show itself. The comedic and especially unique bit of the night was the fact that directions to the bathrooms included going “around the helicopter tail.”
Now, this opera was sad. Period. And I knew it was sad beforehand, so I made an effort to stay detached from it. I have a history of becoming too engulfed by something to be able to separate myself from it fully. When I read books, it is so easy for me to fall into the narrator’s experiences, that I find myself being agitated in life, if the narrator was agitated wherever I left off in my reading, or giddy and joyful, if that was his/her mood. I even take on phrases and mannerisms of the characters, and ask myself questions that I am accustomed to reading (or hearing, if it is an audiobook) from them. I’m not sure that I’ve been ever as on-edge, frown-y, tense, and distrusting as I was while listening to the Hunger Games audiobooks. Life was intense during that one. That is why I wanted to keep my distance tonight, because I know people have very intense experiences when it comes to war.
As I watched the opera, I found myself wondering if these people, the performers, ever have to deal with such a thing as I do. Do they have repercussions in their daily lives, due to the effect playing that particular character had on their mental state? Do they find themselves questioning their sanity, when they have been playing a character whose scale leans too far toward the insane? I wonder.
And I almost succeeded in staying separate from the emotions of the characters. I made it through most of the show safely, but then a surprising part hit me hard. As the main character begins pouring out the shattering sorrows of adjusting to a changed world, back in the USA after nine years of imprisonment, I was dragged into his experience. Tears rolled slowly down my face, unbidden. No, I have never been a POW nor even been in a war, but I have been in my own version of that same homecoming. No parades, no parties, no photos nor celebrations. Life around me is unchanged by my silent arrival to the country I call home. Did they even notice my return? The characters sang of the expectations a returning veteran might have of his family and friends, – that they be as loving and excited about him as they were when he left, and that they were missing and thinking of him as much as he was of them during his absence – and of the unstable feeling of returning to a physical world – one in which he had always felt stability – that has altered dramatically, and even unrecognizably in places.
I know this experience. Again, not the whole war and POW stuff. Certainly not that. Living abroad several times, I have been in my own version of this veteran’s experience after the war. I have learned and improved each time, and I have done my best in more recent years to prepare myself for how people will have changed by the time I return to Houston. No matter what I do, though, there is always a sort of anticipation, a hopeful expectation of how they will be. They will be the best versions of themselves with me, and their love will fill me constantly. They will be patient with me, and gentle. They will be interested in my experience since I have been gone. All of this, because they have missed me and thought longingly of me as I have of them, throughout all of my new struggles in this new life I was living temporarily. And then, when I arrive, finding that this is not the case, they are not as I had unconsciously expected, it is confusing. I recognize the place and the people, but they are both different from what I left, and I cannot quite see how or why. They have not been through what I have. They have not had my struggles. So why do they not comfort me and love me as I have so needed during my absence, as I so need now? They are different from how I remember them, from how they have existed in my mind while we have been apart. But so am I, and I see that they have mistaken who I am now, for an image they have built of me inside their own minds. They can see that I have changed, and I can see that they have changed, but we don’t understand one another’s change, and it is difficult to cope, to fathom, even. And there is always that extra edge of my experiences having been good reason for me to have changed, but theirs were not.
I have not been in the military nor in a war, but I know this small, unsettling, and somewhat worldview-shattering experience of coming home to a now-foreign home. As the lead character raged about his home being so not like the home he once knew, I was dragged into the pain, feeling my own current struggles of readjustment coming forth from deep inside. I am still living in his pain today, though I have been back for a few months. And it hurt even more still, as I saw that my own experience of struggle has lasted so long, although I was only gone for a year this time. How terribly long this period of struggle must have been for this man, must still be for veterans returning today. I went from peaceful times to peaceful times, and my pain still lingers. They likely did not and still do not have such peace on both ends.
I am forever grateful that veterans have made that sacrifice of ease, in order to do what they believed best to help the world at large. I am concerned that we do not do enough to help them with the latter end of their tours, with their returns and readjustments. It is difficult enough altering a regular lifestyle in one culture to a regular one in another culture, like what I have done so often. It is practically unfathomable to go from comfort to a war zone lifestyle, and then back to a house in a safe, city life lifestyle – is the brain ever ready to cope with a change so drastic and so quick? I found myself wanting to hug and hold the characters in the show all tightly to my chest, and to fill them all with love and acceptance of whoever they are and in whatever place they are mentally/emotionally/psychologically. ‘You are safe here, you are important here, and you are perfect as you are.’ I know it was only a show, but it exists only because the story itself is real, and all too common, I believe.