War Photographer: Melissa Gutierrez
I just recently discovered Melissa Gutierrez, and boy do I like her. In fact, the "About Me" section of her blog reads like one of the most elegant soliloquies on what it means to help others. Here's a little tidbit, in her own words:
I’m one of those young suburban twenty-somethings, so I’m in this process of what I think is “growing up,” and I often think that that’s unique (since I’m the only one on the planet who seems to be mysteriously changing, of course), and that I’m entitled to some amount of sarcastic little quip-complaints about it. It’s totally valid, sure, but I keep boring myself. And if there’s one thing I have learned in creative writing graduate school it’s that if you’re boring yourself, you’re boring everybody else. And boring everybody else doesn’t get you very far if you’re trying to love other people all the time. Because love is exciting, people.
She has one foot in academia and one foot solidly in the world; Melissa is bringing the kingdom with her wherever she has her pen and paper. Thank you, Melissa, for bringing it here today. Ya'll can go check out her blog here.
The Storm in the Streets
I’ll tell you right away that I’m a different sort of War Photographer. My front lines are actually way in the back, and you know what, we have cushions and catering back here. I’m in graduate school studying English—I’m making a living off of talking about fairy tales, and I take classes in a place called the “Poetry Center.” Let me tell you, we’re not on anybody’s terror-target lists.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a battle. When it comes to sharing hard stories that aren’t our own, writers are the best there is. The walk-a-mile-in-her-shoes thing is our business, empathy and point-of-view our trade. They would give us bows and arrows (or at least millions and millions of dollars) if we weren’t so moody, or so frail. But we are, and they don’t, so we end up lurking around in corners, watching everybody else and reading everything we can get our paws on.
This past winter, I got my paws on my dad’s copy of Runner’s World magazine, in the upstairs bathroom magazine stack. Usually this is where I learn about the top ten energy-boosting foods or the best way to build to a 5-K while I relieve myself after a heavy Christmas dinner—but what I found in the January 2013 issue this time worked up my insides in a different way.
Last November, the New York City Marathon was canceled in light of Hurricane Sandy (which “ended” officially just six days before the scheduled race). So this January, Runner’s World ran (pun, yes, haha—do you think they’re bored of that at their office yet?) this twelve-page spread: a “2012 NYC Marathon Special Report” covering controversial questions surrounding the marathon and its cancellation, everything from “Should the Marathon Have Been Run?” to “Does Running Have a Blue-Collar Problem?” (spoiler alert: yes) to “Can the Race Make Peace with Staten Island?” These are all really good questions. I can tell they’re good because after they’ve been asked, I still have more.
Like, for example: how can Runner’s World print this article right after (we’re talking directly after; not even an ad separates the two) the 14-page cover story, a month-by-month guide entitled “New Year, New You!” involving subheadings like “Spring-Clean Your Gear” and “Rediscover Your Mojo”?
The easy answer is this: by putting it all into InDesign and printing 600,000+ copies and sending them all to homes and stores and newsstands. The hard answer is: “I don’t know.”
I don’t know why I keep being surprised that we ultimately care about ourselves first and most, that “New Year, New You!” takes up the entire front page but “After the Storm” gets relegated to the bottom corner, near the mailing label and the barcode. I do know that it ultimately doesn’t matter. Runner’s World has been around the block—they know what works and they know how to make and sell a good magazine. They’re not in trouble, here, for putting an underwear-y runner girl on the cover of their magazine; in fact, they’re actually pretty smart for sneaking in a bulk of humanitarian content in the pages underneath her lean, long, healthy flesh.
That Runner’s World asks these questions and opens this discussion in not just in a normal, runnerly-reflective way (i.e. the monthly “I’m A Runner” column on the last page) adds further complication. A particular tension brews in the post-Sandy conversation between NYC marathoners and NYC natives, because both groups are especially experienced in handling hard things. Runners are equipped with this cool metaphor for life: they understand what it means to really push through pain and reach a finish line. And New Yorkers? They had 9/11, and now this wet cold mess. There are different kinds of pain, sometimes bigger kinds, sometimes kinds so much more immediate. With so many of us in such a small space, how can we come to know which pains take preference and precedence?
This was the question for NYC, and it’s a question for the world. At first it seems silly to compare running 26.2 miles for fun to something like the Israeli-Palestine conflict—until you remember that the guy that the marathon was named after was fighting in a war. And what is war but a storm of hearts and grit and bodies? I’ll make the stretch and compare the Sandy/NYC Marathon outrage to the Jews and PLO, though, because the reason that an article like “The Storm (And Everything After)” is happening at all is because two very different people share a space. This twelve-page spread in Runner’s World is about, ultimately, the actual streets of NYC—the pavement and the asphalt and every inch of land beneath—and the question of what to do when the feet that walk upon that territory disagree.
In that sense it’s appropriate to start another war, to put “The Storm” article right next to “New Year, New You!”: to make these ideas share a space. This encourages me because the people receiving this information are obviously in good enough standing (money-wise and health-wise, as I’m assuming the sort of demographic that would buy a running magazine is) to actually do something about something like Hurricane Sandy. What better place to put an article like this than with an audience that understands the power of moving and making physical improvements?
So I guess it makes some sense to put the Stormy Un-Marathon article after the Make Yourself Better one. When you take care of yourself, you can better take care of other people. Or, you can take care of other people while you’re taking care of yourself, and vice versa. Which is what, I learned as I read page 76 of the January 2013 Runner’s World in the bathroom on Christmas day, some of the NYC un-marathoners actually did.
In the sub-section “Were All Marathoners Self-Absorbed?”, Amby Burfoot (winner of the ’68 Boston Marathon and RW editor) doesn’t get around to answering his title question. Instead he talks about ways that the runners—who’d already booked tickets to and hotels in NYC from places all over America and the world—decided to use their stay now that the run had been called off: “Many were able to put their well-trained muscles and pent-up energy to good use, removing heavy, damaged furniture and wet debris from devastated homes,” he writes. This, I think, is brilliant. What do you do in a high-tension space? How do you respond to pain? How do you help make space for healing? Use what you are and what you have for others.
So for the NYC un-runners, their able-bodied bodies. And Runner’s World, the pages of their magazine. And me, my pen and laptop keyboard. But no matter how much I write, or how much anybody runs, or how many pages of articles like this RW publishes, the conflicts and the questions will never ever cease. This is earth and it is spinning: there is always weather, and there are always different kinds of people trying to take shelter in the same small space. The storms will keep on coming—but there will always be an eye, so long as there are lots of other “I”s trying to care about themselves and others. So long as there is us here trying to share.
War Photographers is a series on how we share the hard stories (that might not necessarily be our own). Look for more installments every Thursday for the foreseeable future!