Year of the Rat

James O'Brien

Photographer Wen Huang's book Target documents the 1999 Kosovo crisis with page after page of destroyed homes, decimated buildings, keening mourners, raging protesters, and bodies blown to bits by NATO air strikes. My favorite photo is the one of women in downtown Belgrade selling fresh flowers.

Their faces blasted by the knowledge that any minute could be their last, the flower merchants go about their business of selling dew-kissed petals underneath an enormous sign festooned with a bulls-eye and the word Target. A local artist made the sign, versions of which hung in shop windows and homes around Belgrade as a commentary on the innocent victims of war and the "bring 'em on" spirit of the survivors. The obvious appeal of the portrait is the notion that a person's pilot light remains aflame even in the darkest of times. But I love looking at the flowers themselves, their oblivious magnificence, and the punch line found in the photo's caption: "During the war, flower sales in Belgrade were never interrupted."

Last weekend, in the middle of a long run in northern Minnesota, I came upon a field of sheep. The creaky pain of the first few start-up miles had come and gone, and at mile 10 the endorphins were shooting straight to my brain stem. After some gray days, I was feeling good. So much so that, for no reason other than I decided to not let the good feeling go unannounced to the universe, I started baaaing at the sheep. Loudly. They were sheep, I was a sweaty man in shorts; they looked nervous. They started backing away. I kept baaaing.

The sheep dog guarding the herd barked at me. I barked back. He got up on his haunches. I barked. He barked back. I barked, he barked. We did this for half a mile or so, until I was down the road and out of earshot. What we were saying to each other does not translate neatly to newsprint. It was something more like smoke signals, though not even that mystical--just two souls telling each other stuff like, earn this just keep swimming carpe diem take it easy and see ya down the road big fella don't forget to howl.

I wanted to tell you about that; and about the Belgrade flowers; and about a loon I saw burst out over the sky with an eagle's elegance; and about how the mix of grass, hay, sweat, and rain smells on a Sunday morning; and about this guy who gave me, a thirsty stranger who knocked on his lake home door, a bottle of the sweetest, coldest spring water I've ever inhaled. Because waiting for me back home were more headlines and conversations about terrorists and politicians and dead kids and dashed dreams and digital versus cable and all the shit that clutters the mind and heart from seeing, never mind counting, blessings.

I also wanted to tell you about two songs on the new Badly Drawn Boy CD, One Plus One Is One, which I first heard on a bleak and rainy night a few weeks ago, driving north on Highway 61. The KUMD (Duluth) DJ played eight songs from the new record, most of which are about fighting the blues, looking for answers, losing love, and searching for peace. Then, through the darkness, came a starburst of a song, the chorus of which is sung by a choir of angelic kids: "Everybody needs to know it's the Year of the Rat/Every day we've got to hold on, 'cause if we hold on, we can find some new energy."

That might have been balm enough, yet the song was followed by "Four Leaf Clover," during which Badly Drawn Boy (a.k.a. Damon Gough) puts his arm around the listener's shoulder and promises, "C'mon, I'll let you borrow my four-leaf clover/Take it with you, you can pass it on/You know I'm not one to say that it's over/We'll be rubbing shoulders once again in the sun." The end feeling is that this is a guy who has been through the wringer, but he's still alive and he's learned that at the end of any thousand-yard stare there is the potential for the miraculous.

It's the same philosophy found in Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, written by a holocaust survivor who concluded, "What matters above all is the attitude we take toward suffering, the attitude in which we take our suffering upon ourselves." I look for that philosophy everywhere I can get it these days, and lately I've found it in the carnal sunfloweriness of Jill Scott's new one, Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2. I found it at the heart of the screaming-into-the-infinite-abyss scene of Garden State and the love-amidst-the-ruins flailings of Donnie Darko, and in most every note of Valet's latest stunner, Life on the Installment Plan. I found it in the season conclusion of Six Feet Under, in which a distraught David Fisher is told by his father's ghost, "Fuck your existentialist bullshit. What's a little pain? You're alive. You can do anything you want, and all you can do is whine. Let it go."

David: "It can't be that simple."
Ghost Dad: "What if it is?"

Perhaps most memorable of all, I found it in another photograph from another war. It appeared in the Star Tribune two weekends ago. Dateline: Beslan. A woman held her dead child, whose head was tilted back and speckled with blood. The boy, who looked to be about four years old, could have been sleeping. The woman, whose head was tilted toward the sky, could have been singing. More than anything, I was struck by the woman's face, full of not grief, but grace. Her expression was calm, and it was easy to see that she was thankful, maybe even giving thanks, for the time she'd been given to spend with her son.

Of course I'm making that up. In the moments after the shutter opened and closed, the woman very likely doubled over and wailed. But at that moment, maybe only that moment, she was somewhere else, and the photograph captures something about her, you, and me that can only be described with a word I lost once, during a fourth-grade-wide spelling bee, but which I haven't forgotten how to spell since: b-e-a-u-t-y.

God damn me if I forget it now.


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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