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Dancing away the pain

By Phil Leckman

Monday September 17, 2001
Headline Photo

Phil Leckman

Where to begin?

Only a week ago I wrote a frivolous column comparing Tucson to New York. And now an unprecedented tragedy has ripped a great yawning hole through the heart of that city and thousands of its citizens. Life in the United States seems to have changed forever, as much from the new climate of fear and insecurity as from the sheer terror of the event itself.

Anyone who attempts to address last week's events in print faces the same dilemma: How do we talk about Sept. 11? For an arts reporter, the dilemma is compounded: How do we describe our feelings and reactions with the same words we use to discuss punk bands and gallery openings? Human experience seems somehow inadequate to address this tragedy. Words fail us. Hearts fail us.

So what do we do? How do we keep living? Can art and music somehow help us cope?

I don't presume to have the answers, but instead offer an example. Several years ago I spent a summer in a small village in the mountains of Peru. Life in the village was often hard, but the locals knew how to enjoy themselves, and so when the town fiesta rolled around, it was cause for some excitement. For an entire week, the village plaza was filled with happy people eating, drinking and singing. Buses streamed into town from small hamlets and villages for miles around.

Halfway through the fiesta, one of these buses - a Greyhound-sized one, packed with people - was making its way up the tortuous one-lane dirt road that led over the mountains and into the town when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. The bus went off the road and rolled several thousand feet. Twelve people were killed.

When news reached the town, the reaction was, unsurprisingly, shock and disbelief. Some of those killed were local people. Many more were friends or relatives. For a time, a grim mood settled over the village. Surely, I thought, the remainder of the fiesta would be cancelled. Eventually, a decision was reached - things would go on as planned. Those who died, we were told, had been on their way to the fiesta, so the best way to honor their memories was to continue the celebration.

I'm not implying this solution made the pain go away. Indeed, a certain air of desperation hung over the remainder of the fiesta: folks danced a little too hard, drank a little too much. But as the town partied frenziedly, affirming the crazy joy and pain and pulse of life, we honored the lives that were lost even as we celebrated those that continued.

There's an old Quaker hymn, "Lord of the Dance," that offers comfort in times like these. I know from experience: We sang it at my grandmother's funeral, and my mother's. The universe, the hymn suggests, is a dance. We don't choose its melody, or pick its steps. We just keep dancing, celebrating death as well as life, pain as well as joy. We just keep dancing, because it's all we can do.


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