Smudged Lenses

I’ve often heard people use the expressions “I had a sheltered childhood” or “I’ve led a sheltered life”. Shelter is a powerful word, both a noun and a verb. It implies safety from the elements, as in “shelter in a storm”. It implies care and protection as in “we shelter our children from unpleasant realities”. It can also imply stark survival and bare necessity as in “homeless shelters”. A Rolling Stones lyric in the song “Gimme Shelter” says “if I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah, I’m going to fade away.”

My childhood could best be illustrated by watching an episode of M*A*S*H*. Just change the country from Korea to VietNam and the characters from officers to enlisted. Unlike officers, whose quarters are luxurious in comparison, enlisted soldiers survive in makeshift tents with poisonous insects. They sleep on cots that collapsed during the night and spend their days drinking and playing cardswar rages all around them while waiting to kill or be killed. Their thoughts and actions become controlled not by beliefs and ideals, but by adrenalin surges produced by fear and survival instinct. The sights and sounds of war remain within, even after hearing loss by bomb blast or being blinded by schrapnel.

As a child, I was sheltered from nothing. My father returned home from VietNam addicted to the drug that would keep him awake to prevent being killed in his sleep–methamphetamine. With his addiction, he brought home some slides he’d managed to smuggle out of the country despite his camera being confiscated. There, in the living room, on the Kodak slide projector screen, I witnessed children whose legs had been blown off by land mines, their eyes bereft of focus or hope, their mothers weeping in anguish, and more.

When my father gambled away our house, we moved from city to city, park to park—where my brothers and I would have sack races in our sleeping bags until dark, until we found another they could afford. It was a one-bedroom for five of us. We heard their every argument, every frustration, every explosion, until one by one, we went to foster care. That homelessness remains within me, just as those sights and sounds can never be unseen, unheard. Yet, I have found that their influence can be diminished by being outnumbered.

Every time I see a parent lovingly put a helmet on a child, stoop over and run alongside while holding the back of their first bicycle without training wheels, another dark smudge is wiped from the lenses through which I view the world. (Working at an elementary school helps me see more of these things.) Every tweet or post I read that’s written from a place of peaceful resistance to the insanity of war and greed removes yet another, and for this, I give thanks.

My inner homelessness manifests itself in constant changes of address. A writer has to retain their objectivity through non-attachment, after all. But if I want to move from safe inner shelter to safe inner home, I must keep looking and listening for those things that restore my tainted vision and enable me to not just look, but see, and not just listen, but hear. Unless we all learn to do the same, the war will never end.

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