Birkenau, Annex to Auschwitz: Repost on 70th Anniversary of Liberation

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Today’s post title comes from Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination, written by Otto Dov Kulka, 80-year-old professor emeritus of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Kulka spent his childhood imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

From Elie Wiesel's memoir, Night: "And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.   We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”   We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau."

From Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night:
“And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.
We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”
We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.”

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Birkenau, (also known as Auschwitz II, a 171-hectare sister camp to 20-hectare Auschwitz I), was overwhelming to me not only in its grisly outfittings and haunting stories, but in its sheer vastness. Otto Dov Kulka’s choice of the word “Metropolis” is clear and precise, clean of melodrama or exaggeration. Horizon-pushing is the impression, and bone-numbingly bleak.

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The day our family visited, the ice-snow was scratching laterally, metallically, across our faces.  We clutched our down-filled coats to our chests, stamped our lined boots, and tugged down on our thermal hats while our guide explained that prisoners, dressed in thin cotton shifts, crude wooden clogs, and weary from exposure, malnourishment, the 12-hours days of forced heavy labor and from perpetual beatings, died mostly at this time of year.

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Had our family been deported to Birkenau, our 17-year-old Dalton would have probably been the only one to survive.  We parents are too close to age 50, considered too lod for productive labor, and Luc is younger than age 14, which was generally the cut-off age for "best workers."

Had the members of our family who were with us on this visit actually been imprisoned at Birkenau, our 17-year-old Dalton would have probably been the only one to survive. We parents are too close to age 50, considered old for productive labor. We would have been gassed or killed on the spot.  Luc is younger than age 14, which was generally the cut-off age for “best workers.” He would have probably been disposed of, too.

The following are excerpts from Thomas W. Laqueur’s review of Otto Dov Kulka’s memoir.

Kulka and his parents came to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Theresienstadt [a smaller camp close to Prague] in September 1943, and he left the camp, by then a strange ghost town, in the infamous death march of 18 January 1945. He and his mother were spared the wholesale annihilation of the first 5,000 in March 1944 because he was in the Birkenau hospital recovering from diphtheria and she was nursing him. A hospital was only metres from where thousands were murdered every day; surreal. He was sure that he would die that June when he was stopped at the gate by an SS guard – “Bulldog” (we see his picture) – and prevented from joining a group of men who had been selected for labour.

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Upper bunk. As few as five, as many as ten bodies slept stacked chest to back on one level.  Sleeping on one's dies, one could not turn in the night without all the other bodies turning with you.

Upper bunk. As few as four, but more often as many as ten bodies slept stacked on their sides, chest to back on each bunk level. One could not turn in the night without requiring all the other bodies to turn at the same time. Sometimes there was a thin layer of straw. More commonly, prisoners slept on the bare planks.

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But as his group of boys was marched back they were not directed toward the gas chamber but to another part of the camp to pull carts. Boys were cheaper than donkeys. Again, he survived. The child was spared the depths of torment felt by adults in the murderous Auschwitz universe because, the historian tells us, there was less dignity and autonomy to strip away.

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The bunks were tilted to allow for human waste or vomit to drain off the lower edge. Dysentery was common, and prisoners were only allowed two 30- second toilet pauses a day. The "toilets" were a long wooden plank with holes. Beneath was an open trough.  This ran down the middle fo the bunk house.

The bunks were tilted to allow for human waste or vomit to run down and drain off the lower edge. Dysentery was common, and prisoners were only allowed two 30- second toilet pauses a day. In some barracks,  “toilets” were no more than a long wooden plank with holes. Beneath the plank was an open trough that ran down the middle of the barrack.

The flames of the ovens rose several meters high above the chimneys, but he lived a life in which the world of European high culture still mattered. An older boy, with whom he shared a hospital bunk, gave him a secreted copy of Crime and Punishment; a conductor organised a children’s choir that sang Beethoven/Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in a lavatory barrack where the acoustics were good. Did he choose this music as an absurd, purposeless protest, meant to hold on to values that Auschwitz radically denied, or was it an act of sarcasm, “the outermost limit of self-amusement,” Kulka asks.

"Sei Ruhig!"  Be quiet!   A barrack warning.

“Sei ruhig!”
Be quiet!
A warning stenciled on a barrack wall.

"Eine Laus ist dein Tod" A louse means your death.  Another ironic barrack warning.

“Eine Laus ist dein Tod”
A louse : your death.
Ironic warning on barrack wall.

As a boy he did not know; he sang. And as a man he says that he has lived by the first explanation, an illusion perhaps “greater than the fierceness of sarcasm”. Having sung Beethoven opposite the Auschwitz crematorium is, perhaps, part of Kulka’s “private mythology”, but is also, as readers know from the ending, evidence of the continuity of culture in hopeless circumstances.

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…Why, after … any illusion of escaping death had gone, did Jewish communal life, and indeed cultural life more generally, persist? There were efforts to save the sick; there were concerts, theatrical performances and schools. In a world in which death was a certainty, people acted as if there was a future. Men thought about going to their deaths bravely, as if it mattered to posterity, as if there would be a posterity.

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From the depths of the gas chambers they sang the confessions of “three secular movements of political messianism” – the Czech national anthem, the Zionist anthem, Hatikvah, and the International. A 20-year-old girl wrote poetry in the shadow of the crematoria that demonstrated her “abiding commitment to humanism” and to a moral ideal that rejected all violence and bloodshed. It survived; she was gassed and burned to cinders. We do not know her name.

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The boy [Kulka] grows up and becomes a historian. As an adult, he and his father visit the site of the Stutthof concentration camp, now a featureless field at the estuary of the Vistula. He includes a picture of them in front of a map of the camp that attempts to evoke what had once stood on these empty fields. What now remains is only meaningless landscape. The author’s mother had arrived there in September 1944 after a deadly march from Auschwitz; she worked at searching shoes, sent there from other camps, for valuables and then repairing them before they were forwarded to Germany. The men – father and son – had learned from a survivor the circumstances under which their wife and mother had died. Arriving pregnant with a child conceived in Auschwitz, she gave birth to a healthy baby that her attendant women then strangled to avoid detection; she used a hidden diamond that her husband had given her to buy food for a critically sick comrade; the comrade lived; she then became ill; she did not live. Kulka says Kadish near where she was buried. He had seen his mother last when she marched out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau gate and, unlike Orpheus, she did not look back at him.

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**

Nearly all of these images courtesy of Dalton Bradford. Thank you, son.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Auschwitz: Repost Marking 70 Years Since its Liberation

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"Macht" is the conjugated German verb, "to make". It is also a noun: "Power".

“Macht” is the conjugated German verb, “to make or render.”  It is also a noun: “Power.”

Our group, entering the camp.

Our group, entering the camp

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Who Says
Julia Hartwig
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering
scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished
songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces
But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown
this
and not the monstrous uproar on the street drenched with blood
the wild screams of the mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soliders
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm
with milk
Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescues
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful
numbness of despair
At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff
and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place
beneath silent stars in which these events
had been recorded centuries ago.

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 Prisoners' collected belongings – here, prosthetics.

Prisoners’ collected belongings.  Here, prosthetics

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Massacre of the Boys
Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated from the Polish by Adam Czerniawski

The children cried, “Mummy!
But we have been good!
It’s dark in here! Dark!”

See them They are going to the bottom
See the small feet
they went to the bottom Do you see
that print
of a small foot here and there

pockets bulging
with string and stones
and little horses made of wire

A great plain closed
like a figure of geometry
and a tree of black smoke
a vertical
dead tree
with no star in its crown.

[The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948]

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Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

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Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

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It was odd and uncomfortable to walk out of that execution courtyard

The strangeness of walking out of that execution courtyard

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Passion of Ravensbrück
Janos Pilinsky
Translated from the Hungarian by Janos Csokits and Ted Hughes

He steps out from the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like projection.

He is horribly alone.
His pores are visible.
Everything about him is so gigantic,
everything is so tiny.

And this is all.
The rest–––
the rest was simply
that he forgot to cry out
before he collapsed.

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Observation hole in door to bunker

Observation hole in door to gassing and burning bunker

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Leaving. . .

Leaving. . .

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Say You’re Sorry: Part 2 of a 50¢ Parable

A few posts ago, I wrote about how, when I was six, I filched a 50¢ piece from my girlfriend, Laura Nieminen. This quaint story was a parable about sin, investigating what sin did to me. How I burned with both adrenalin and shame, with satisfaction and sorrow. How I hoarded my heist and hid my wrong, regretting (and ruminating about it) all the while. How, in the end, doing wrong didn’t do much to Laura (I doubt she ever knew she was robbed), but made me, the thief, burdened, self-conscious, and split from my true self, uneasy, dis-eased.

Ultimately, the whole episode cost me more than I’m sure it cost Laura.  I mean, look: I’m now at midlife, and–– can you believe it?––I’m here on a blog writing about those same rusty copper pennies.

And over 40 years later, you see it’s still there, that stupid coin, lodged in my memory like a token jammed in the slot of a vending machine. It never bought me what I thought I wanted.  Instead, it cost me, and it still does.

So. What’s a girl to do? What can you do about 45 years of dis-ease?

Luckily, criminal minds (like mine) work swiftly. I hopped on a plan. And onto my keyboard:

“Hello, Melissa! Oh my oh my oh my … How did you come to find me on Facebook? I’m glad that you posted your memories of Bloomington, Indiana…”

“Laura, CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS? Do you even remember me? I’ve got to tell you that there’s a story behind all this, and those pictures from Bloomington that I posted on FB were meant for you, hoping that, when you got my FB friend request, you’d maybe remember me, or at least try to figure out who this random person is, by hopping to my FB page, and would then make the connection.”

And that’s how, after 45+ years, I ended up reconnecting with Laura Nieminen, the girl-now-woman I’d wronged. I then shared with her my post, and wrote out the check: 45 years’ interest on 50¢. The burden off my conscience weighed exponentially more than 50¢, and I was also really glad to have reconnected with a childhood friend.

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Would that all wrongs were as measly as a fistful of pennies.

Would that all the offended were as gracious and good-humored as Laura.

And would that all wrongs were as easily righted.

Well, that’s as far from being true as childhood is from adulthood, as Bloomington, Indiana is from Bad Homburg, Germany. I’ve assembled in my life, as I’ll guess is the case for you, a whole hidden collection of stuff pilfered or appropriated: my sister’s earrings; my roommate’s paperback Milton; a well-honed thought from a great thinker; an evocative turn of phrase––oh, c’mon, just three words!!?––from a fellow writer. I have yet to apologize for them all.

Then there have been the countless ways in which I have knowingly or unknowingly caused others harm, thereby robbing them of their sense of safety with me, trust, security, or as psychiatrist Aaron Lazare writes, their self-concept.

Whether we’ve ignored, belittled, betrayed, or publicly humiliated someone, the common denominator of any personal offense is that we’ve diminished or injured a person’s self-concept. The self-concept is our story about ourselves. It’s our thoughts and feelings about who we are, how we would like to be, and how we would like to be perceived by others.

Lazare, in his excellent article, notes that apologizing––throwing down our arms and exhaling a big, long “mea culpa”––while seen by some as a sign of weakness, is really the epitome of strength. That strength is personal, interpersonal –– as in our relationships with family and friends –– as well as intercultural and international ––as in political tensions like those from South Africa’s apartheid struggle, to which Lazare points:

Take a look at what will certainly go down in history as one of the world’s greatest apologies, F.W. de Klerk’s apology to all South Africans for his party’s imposition of apartheid.

On April 29, 1993, during a press conference, de Klerk acknowledged that apartheid led to forced removals of people from their homes, restrictions on their freedom and jobs, and attacks on their dignity.

He explained that the former leaders of the party were not vicious people and, at the time, it seemed that the policy of separate nations was better than the colonial policies. “It was not our intention to deprive people of their rights and to cause misery, but eventually apartheid led to just that. Insofar as that occurred, we deeply regret it.”

“Deep regret,” de Klerk continued, “goes further than just saying you are sorry. Deep regret says that if I could turn the clock back, and if I could do anything about it, I would have liked to have avoided it.”

In going on to describe a new National Party logo, he said: “It is a statement that we have broken with that which was wrong in the past and are not afraid to say we are deeply sorry that our past policies were wrong.” He promised that the National Party had scrapped apartheid and opened its doors to all South Africans.

Lazare’s reference to de Klerk piqued my interest, because I remember vividly when we lived in Oslo and both de Klerk and Nelson Mandela were awarded the Peace Prize there. Both men appeared on the balcony of the Grand Hotel in the Oslo’s old city center, yet the crowds below on the street shouted down de Klerk. Under a shower of boo’s, the South African leader turned, inching back into the darkness of his hotel room.  Mandela stood there, smiling, as the crowds erupted in a stomping, blasting chant: “Man-del-a! Man-del-a!”

(Apparently, some evils are neither easily nor quickly erased from public –– or private –– memory.)

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Mandela’s acceptance speech was gracious, a template we all can follow in our quest to forgive and to be forgiven:

Far from the rough and tumble of the politics of our own country, I would like to take this opportunity to join the Norwegian Nobel Committee and pay tribute to my joint laureate, Mr. F.W. de Klerk.

He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and people through the imposition of the system of apartheid….

Another voice risen from the evils of apartheid (and another voice awarded the Nobel), is that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His resonant No Future Without Forgiveness lays forth the necessity of apologizing, be that on micro or macro levels. “Without forgiveness,” writes Tutu, “there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations” (italics mine). He urges individuals (and countries) to make the magnanimous decision to admit a mistake and ask for forgiveness:

“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

randomhouse.com

randomhouse.com

As 2015 gets underway, I am challenging myself and my readers to seriously consider the above words of de Klerk, Mandela, and Tutu, and to absorb this hard but vital caveat from Lazare:

The most common cause of failure in an apology–or an apology altogether avoided–is the offender’s pride. It’s a fear of shame. To apologize, you have to acknowledge that you made a mistake. You have to admit that you failed to live up to values like sensitivity, thoughtfulness, faithfulness, fairness, and honesty. This is an admission that our own self-concept, our story about ourself, is flawed. To honestly admit what you did and show regret may stir a profound experience of shame, a public exposure of weakness. Such an admission is especially difficult to bear when there was some degree of intention behind the wrongdoing.

Egocentricity also factors into failed or avoided apologies. The egocentric is unable to appreciate the suffering of another person; his regret is that he is no longer liked by the person he offended, not that he inflicted harm. That sort of apology takes the form of “I am sorry that you are upset with me” rather than “I am sorry I hurt you.” This offender simply says he is bereft–not guilty, ashamed, or empathic.

Whether we have robbed someone’s fistful of cents or sense of self, it is never too late to discover or demonstrate real strength and say that we are sorry. Apologizing requires honesty, generosity, commitment and courage, demands and deepens our humanity, expands our morality, and costs us absolutely nothing.  Not even 50¢.

 

 

Global Family: The Next Generation

Let’s go to Italy. Sicily, to be specific. It is late summer 2013, our daughter Claire is wearing a name tag that identifies her as a full time missionary or sorella (sister) Bradford, and she’s just been transferred from Rome, the northern south, to Palermo, southern south.

Palermo at night

Palermo at night

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As an earnest sorella, she’s been asked to serve as something known as a Sister Training Leader (she counsels and coaches other sorelle in her mission), and is focused on introducing her brand new sister companion who’s just arrived from the States to Sicily. Lots to learn, loads of responsibility, house to set up, people to get to know, networks to build, a local dialect to decipher, and a muggy, sweltering summer that makes all these layers of emotional weight even stickier and heavier than the sodden shirts that cling to the sorelles’ backs as they tromp Sicilian cobblestones.

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To get her bearings, La Sorella meets the anziani, or male missionaries, at Palermo’s Stazione Centrale. Among these young men is her “district leader.” (Missionaries always serve in companionships. Companionships are grouped geographically into districts. Districts are grouped in zones. And zones are overseen by a volunteer mission president and his wife, who sit in Rome.) This district leader is an Italian –The Italian — and maintains an appropriate professional distance with La Sorella and her companion. His voice, warm and round as a viola, makes him seem much older than his 22 years.  His accent is from the north. He extends his hand to shake hers, which he does just once and without the slightest frill of ceremony:

“Sei Sorella Bradford?”

“Si.”

And the missionaries go to work.

In Monreale, outside Palermo, at at pranzo that was as long and love-filled as this table

In Monreale, outside Palermo, at at pranzo as long and love-filled as this table


Weeks pass.

For 6 months, The Italian remains, as does La Sorella, in Palermo — teaching, leading, (he becomes a zone leader, she continues as a sister training leader),  serving, organizing, befriending, baptizing, watching one another in some unpleasant and soul-revealing circumstances, observing the other making sacrifices, making peace, and making the occasional liter of The Italian’s specialty (and La Sorella’s favorite food), homemade pesto. Mutual respect grows to mutual confidence, which grows over time into a strong friendship.

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Then Rome happens. The Italian is transferred to The Eternal City the same day La Sorella is to have her final interview with her mission president before flying home the next morning to her family in Switzerland. On that same evening before her return to civilian life, The Italian slips her a letter (more like a hand-written novella) which she’s to open only after she reaches home.

As you’ve already figured out, a protracted year of weekly novellas stacks up: Italy –>Geneva, Geneva –> Italy. Italy–>Utah, Utah –> Italy. Italy–>Frankfurt, Frankfurt–>Italy. Italy–>Utah … over and over again, week in and week out. While The Italian and La Sorella keep up the intense correspondence, there are also our road trips to Milan to visit The Italian’s Famiglia south of Milan…

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Several courses at their traditional family table in Lombardy

Trips the Famiglia makes to Geneva to visit La Sorella’s Family…

The Famiglia's first fondue, Gruyères, Switzerland

The Famiglia’s first fondue, Gruyères, Switzerland


And enough Skype calls between Sorella and Famiglia, Family and Famiglia, to assure us we all have a future as friends.

Meeting The Italian for the first time, Piazza del Popolo, Rome, Easter, 2014

Meeting The Italian for the first time, Rome, Easter, 2014

 

The Italian and his missionary companions and a friend of the church on their one free day in the week, pedal carting through Rome's Borghese Gardens

The Italian, his missionary companions, and a friend of the church on their one free day in the week, pedal carting through Rome’s Borghese Gardens

And just in time.

Because this week, 18 months since La Sorella and The Italian first met as missionaries, he has come home. La Sorella has made special arrangements to leave her last (intense) semester of university studies for 10 days to be in Italy awaiting him. Not at the Milan’s Stazione Centrale like Palermo’s Stazione where this story began.  But at his home in a Lombardian village south of Milan. After being officially released from his missionary title, The Italian — now Alessandro — comes through his front door. The Sorella — now Claire –is waiting there, practically hyperventilating. He leaves his suitcases at the door. He falls to a knee. “Claire?…”

She manages to release a single word up through that sweet, warm pooling of anticipation and affection.

“Si. . .!”

Now the love birds go to work.

Alessandro and Claire

Alessandro and Claire, yesterday.

 

 

Global Mom Talks: Foreign Languages

My first kiss was Austrian. Age fourteen, early evening, standing at a fountain in front of a bus stop in Salzburg,  saying goodbye to my Latin-looking crush. Named Horst.

You’ll forgive me that I didn’t make it kissless to sixteen.  But talk about thrill.

Fourteen in Florence, with Maxi, Horst, Kelly, a bad perm and Hash buckle jeans

Fourteen in Florence, with Maxi, Horst, Kelly, a bad Toni perm and Hash buckle jeans

Not about the kiss, mind you, but about having understood word-for-word the sweet goodbye promise Horst whispered into my ear, as clear to me as if he’d spoken English. With that, a surge went through me – ba-shwiiing! – and my passion (even more for languages than for Horst) was ignited.

Five languages by 40, I decided right there as I hugged teary-eyed Horst good-bye, stepped onto my bus, and pulled out into the sunset and my dusky future.

Did I know what I was vowing myself into? Of course. . .naw.  But it was my first kiss, the sun was setting over Salzburg’s Festung, and, well,  forty-years-old? Humph. That seemed as far away from 14 as did my hometown back in the Rockies.

Now, well past forty, I can look back on my decades of learning languages, and share some truths I was to come to know after getting “bitten” by a love for language.  And for Horst.

First visit to Rome's Coliseum

First visit to Rome’s Coliseum

1) It’s Work

Hard work. Inevitably, there will be times your head will hurt like your quadriceps did when you hiked Kilimanjaro with a piano on your back.  Or like your biceps did when you singlehandedly pulled that boat filled with molten lead out of the bay. That kind of hurt.  Why? Because your brain is doing gymnastics. While wearing chain mail and armor. With the sheer voltage of all the neuro-transmission blazing away in the brain while you try to learn a new language, your gray matter could honestly light up Fenway Park on a Saturday might. It’s that demanding. To stick to the task, you’ll have to be pretty motivated.

(A love interest never hurts.)

2) Ego? Leave it at the Door

Our Dalton insists this be no more than #2 on the list.  Although he phrases it like this: “Be ready to be so embarrassed, so humiliated, so reduced by the mistakes you’ll make, that you want to dive under a table and pull huge brocaded drapes over yourself while you crawl out the nearest door.”  And then he goes on; “You’ll ruin any reputation you ever had of being even this smart. Be prepared to look really, really dumb.”

This, of course, happens when you’re learning languages at any stage of life after your childhood years, when you’re oblivious to people’s judgements of you and the bloopers you’ll pop out in your new tongue. Think of being stripped down as close to the bone as you can be.

Then go below the bone.

There. That’s how self-assured you’ll be while learning a new language.

My baby brother Aaron, who began learning German in an Austrian kindergarten. He still speaks it along with other languages.

My baby brother Aaron, who began learning German in an Austrian kindergarten. He still speaks it along with other languages.

3) Younger, Better

Which makes you want to learn all your languages before the age of 12 or so. (Before 8 is reported to be even better.)

My polyglot friend, Irina, will never unlearn her Russian or Bulgarian, learned at home and in primary school.  And her Czech learned from extended family from  her early childhood on? Also like a second skin. Her French, perfected during university studies in Paris, took a bit more effort because she was older, she admits; but it has become a polished – native – over the years.  English, she began using in earnest later in life, as she did Italian.

The research is extensive about how nimble the child’s brain is with regards to language acquisition.  You know this already. But did you also know that the acquisition of a foreign language (or two, or three) before puberty will increase general cognitive ability, acuity with other subjects, and lead to greater academic tenacity overall, will facilitate a closer understanding of one’s native tongue, heighten cultural sympathy, and lead to deeper compassion?

4)You Can Get By, But You Can’t Get In 

If you move to a foreign country, lucky you!  You have every opportunity to adapt to a new culture and learn a language. If you chose, however, to not integrate and not learn the language, you’ve missed an opportunity.  Of course, you might get by. Even well.  But as research proves, you cannot enter in.  By “in”, I mean into the deepest heart of any given culture without at least a rudimentary facility with the language.  Think of it like this: the language of any people is like the smell and taste and sight and sound and texture of their cuisine. Until we have it in our own mouths, chew on it, swallow it and digest it so that it’s a part of us, it’s almost as if we’re staying in the living room and never going into the kitchen where it’s whipped up. In the living room we’re in their “house,” yes. But we never really taste what makes them who they are.

First glimpses of Geneva, Switzerland, over 30 years ago.

First glimpses of Geneva, Switzerland, over 30 years ago.

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5) The More, The Easier

We talk glibly about laying tracks for language learning. But that figure of speech might not be so wrong. Once your brain has been trained (or tracked) for a second language, it is more capable of laying another language on top of those same tracks.

Beyond that, when the languages are related (Germanic, Romance, etc.), the structures and vocabulary are similar, and the learner has a distinct advantage.  For example: German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Flemish and Icelandic are language cousins.  If you master one, you already have an aptitude for acquiring the next language cousin.

6) Your Ear Helps Your Tongue

My mathematical skills are abysmal.

Subabysmal.

Still fourteen, and still playing the cello.

Still fourteen, and still playing the cello. Back then.

Which seems to surprise people when they learn that I love to learn languages.

“But. . .I thought language was all about math,” some say. To which I say,”If language had anything to do with math, I would have dropped out of this international lifestyle on day one.”

So how do I do this language thing?  Where I lack the head for quantum physics (or algebra), I make up with an ear for music. I was raised by professional musicians, and was a professional musician myself (a concert soprano) for years. When I approach a language, I am listening primarily for its music. I hear its cadence, its rhythm, its tones and phrasing.  And then after listening and watching everyone’s mouth while they speak it, I do what I do when I sing: I mimic. I learn languages the same way I prefer to learn music. By ear.

The grammar (or math) of a language I figure out later, osmotically. So I don’t ruin the whole melody. (And that takes  a lot of #1).

7) Stockpile.  Then Spew.

You know, of course, that children are stockpiling the rudiments of language for months – years – before ever producing it themselves.   Your snooglie-wooglie isn’t just passively watching your lips while you coo and patter away while feeding her those strained peas.  She’s hurriedly building language basics.  In the process, she’ll grunt, squeal, howl, belch and cry – all efforts to transform what she’s stockpiling in her brain into the complex coded cooing system you’re feeding her with her peas.

Then one day, it all erupts into active language: “Peeeeeeeeeeeeeas!”

And she’s off!

Chen Xihua, my Mandarin teacher, visiting me in my new home outside Geneva, Switzerland.

Chen Xihua, my Mandarin teacher, visiting me in my new home outside Geneva, Switzerland.

With adults, it’s really not much different. You’ll sit in your Mandarin Sunday School class (well, at least that’s what I did). And at first you’ll only hear a string of undecipherable sounds. You’ll watch everyone’s lips. Like they’re feeding you strained peas. And since they’re loving folks, they’ll try to spoon feed you.

You’ll manage a grunt.

Then your brain will snatch a word. A little conjunction, maybe. Or two words. You’ll squeal. You’ll howl.

The next week you’ll grasp a full phrase. (And that’s where you belch.)

Then next month, you understand whole sentences, concepts, a paragraph! You’re feeling so confident, you might raise your hand. . . to . . .to make a comment. Which you do. But you can only say a sentence or two.

That’s where you cry.

First, you stockpile the words. Then you produce them.  Don’t be surprised if you have to receive for several weeks. Or months. One day, just watch.  You’ll be spewing your own peas.

8) Not All Languages are Created Equal

Languages are different, ranking in difficulty because of size and complexity of vocabulary, grammatical structure like number of declensions, jargon, syntax, tones. A fellow blogger, Richard, has been learning Somali in his home state of Minnesota. If you want a peek at how linguists rate the difficulty of languages (and Somali rates stratospherically on that scale), stop in on his blog, Loving Languages.

Depending on your mother tongue, certain languages will be (or should be) easier than others. Nadja, my Swiss German friend, speaks Swiss German, High German, Dutch, and English. And she claims they are fairly easy for her. She studied French growing up in Switzerland and has perfected it living for many years in Paris, and also learned Spanish to serve a full-time mission for our church. Maybe – maybe? – Somali would be a challenge for her, given that it is neither a Germanic nor a Romance language, being completely unrelated in structure and tones to what she has already learned.

9) Classroom Vs. Street Language

“What you taught me was German. I trust you. But it ain’t what they’re talking at me here!”

This was a letter from a young volunteer for our church, who had been in our near-immersion courses in the Missionary Training Center where my husband and I had instructed for a combined five years.  Sure, we’d given this missionary all the rules and phrases, and had done so in the cleanest, most comprehensible High German we could.

But he’d landed in Basel.  Basel’s Swiss German sounds as much like High German as Beowulf sounds like The Nightly News. There’s some overlap. I swear it. But I’m not finding it.

My first ever visit to Switzerland. Fourteen again.

My first ever visit to Switzerland. Fourteen again.

When you learn language in a classroom, it is bound to be too artificial (and static and padded) an environment for you to have to navigate the true break-neck-speed bumper-car  world of active language exchange. Don’t be surprised when you land in Palermo and your crash course Italian doesn’t match the dragon blaze coming out of the mouth of the rabid taxi driver. Or when the three semesters of high school Russian drain out of you in a lifeless puddle as you face down a burly train conductor in Moscow’s Kalishnikovo station.

10) Promoting World Peace

I’ve noted that visitors in a new culture who say, wincing with disdain, “Oh, that’s soooo French/German/Italian/Norwegian/Tanzanian/Russian” are most often those who’ve not made the effort to speak that language. They’ve chosen, in effect, to remain outsiders, the ones left standing in the living room, never eating the feast.  (#4)

Learning another language besides your mother tongue allows you to look at people in a totally different manner, as real, complex, multifaceted and fascinating creations. And once you really have it swirling in your cells, it becomes part of who you are, and your judgements of that culture and of its people will be altered profoundly and permanently.  You will have melted down the rigid walls of prejudice, xenophobia, rigidly destructive hyper-patriotism, and will be on your way to becoming an active agent in healing the too many breeches in humankind. You will be a vociferous defender of those people and their culture. You will – imagine this – sincerely love them.

Even more than I thought I did Horst.

Salzburg, Austria, 1978. View over the Festung.

Salzburg, Austria, 1978. View over the Festung.

**
What truths about learning languages would you add to this list?

What languages have you learned, and how?

What has learning languages done to your view of yourself, others and the world?

Honoring My Mother: My First Repost

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Driving the plane tree-canopied Roman roads of southern France with my parents last week, I noticed in my peripheral vision that my mom, sitting next to me in the back seat, was gripping the door handle.

Why the grip? I thought. She’s buckled in, there’s no one else on this road, Randall’s a safe driver, and we’re cruising this long, straight line. 

Mid-thought, I realized I was gripping my door handle, too. Exactly like her.

I also saw my mom was chewing gum. (I dislike gum-chewing.)

And mid-thought, I realized I was mid-chawnk.

She’s so animated, I’d been noticing all week, and look at her whip up a conversation with any stranger. Like me, my kids say.  And just like the way she used to call for us – operatically, throughout our little Utah neighborhood –– “Oh, Daaaaaltons! Come to diiiinner!” –– she sings my son’s name to get his attention: “Oh, Dalton! Come to dinner!”

Just. Like. Me.

Then I looked at my Dad, sitting in front of me in that car. Strong brow, concave temples, intense eyes, I thought.  And what’s this man got against sleep?

An instant, and in the rear view mirror I caught my own eyes staring back at me: riveted. Emphasized by those sunken temples. Underslept. My Dad’s mesmerizing green-blue-gray bloodshot.

In Rousillon, France

In Rousillon, France

I used to draw caricatures, and when I was a teenager, I did one as an anniversary gift to my parents.  It featured me as a hybrid of my Mom and Dad: Dad’s brow, Mom’s chin, Dad’s eyes, Mom’s hair, Dad’s fast gait, Mom’s theatrical voice, Dad’s cold fingers, Mom’s wide feet.

I looked like Quasimodo in drag.

What I couldn’t draw as a teenager is what fascinates me more today. There are all these parental qualities I mirror, the ones no one can see or hear or measure in a caricature: My strong inclinations toward the spiritual. My voracious curiosity.  My sometimes flamboyance, my former brooding. My perfectionism. My anxiety.  My sweet and salty composite self that, in ways still being revealed to me, are reflections of not only my beloved parents, but my parents’ parents, and their parents’ parents. And theirs. And theirs. Farther back that I can comprehend.

I am them all.

in Yvoire, France. Dad and his camera.

In Yvoire, France. Dad and his camera.

. . .And his camera. . .

. . .and his camera. . .

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France.  Daughter, Dad, camera.

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France. Daughter, Dad, camera.

Maison Carrée. Daughter, Dad's camera.

Maison Carrée. Daughter, Dad’s camera.

When pregnant with our eldest, Parker, I had an ultrasound.  I forgot completely to check for the tell-tale plumbing showing gender, because what gripped me most – what flipped me out! – was this little thing that had to do with our baby’s hand.  The technician didn’t understand why I gasped, squealed, then grew teary: There in a swimmy uterine vision was that small, 5-month-old left hand, fisted (could this be true?) with the thumb tucked between the pointer and middle finger.

Just like his father.

(Next time you sit next  to Randall during a long meeting or airplane ride, take a look at his thumbed fist.)

Out walking. No one can outwalk us.

Out walking. No one can out-walk us.

. . .even on crutches. . .

. . .even on crutches. . .

“A woman is her mother/That’s the main thing,” wrote poet Anne Sexton.

A woman is her father, too.  And a man is his mother, and his father, a baby his daddy.  And we are our grandfathers, our grandmothers. We are all composites of someone, most often someone totally unknown to us, whose eyes, voice, gait or grip (on a car handle or on a thumb) we have inherited.

The question is, how?

Scientists in the field of genetics used to insist that a double helix was the essential tree of life, that DNA was destiny, and although a pretty twisted ladder, it was an unyielding one that linked generations to each other. That stance says that we are inextricably and irrefutably the result of our bundle of wiring, however prickly or sleek that might be making you feel right about now.

While that camp was nailing down that truth, anthropologists were telling us something else; that zip code, not genetic code, was our true destiny. That geography, (meant broadly or specifically), determines who you and I will become.  We can escape (or overrule) our genetic print-out by changing our environment.  Drug lords and sociopaths and saints and poets aren’t bred, they’re cultivated, and that cultivation implies culture. Tweak culture (through revolutions, political uprisings, schooling campaigns, a move to the burbs) and you’re tweaking generations of humanity. If nothing else, one can at least lean that DNA ladder on a different wall.

Behavioralists piped in. They argued that nurture, not nature and not society at large, determined the composite person. I grip the car door handle or sing my children home, not because I am neurologically wired to do so, and not because I sprang from a western culture where cars and singing are a norm, but because I was nurtured by a mother who holds tight and sings well. Caring contact, say the behavioralists, (like regular physical caressing and cooing during infancy – or the opposite, isolation and other forms of brutality) will “make” a certain person. They went further to say that enough caressing can greatly soften, even straighten, a dangerously kinked-up double helix.

You’re way ahead of me in this already, and you’re thinking, no, neither DNA, environment nor nurture have made you who you are. You have a will. And this cast iron will of yours has made you into the intelligent, compassionate, resourceful survivor you feel you are today. You are the czar of your destiny. You have overcome. You’ve mastered your genetically inherited temper, waistline, anxieties and ingrown toenails. You’ve risen from the rot of the projects, or you’ve not let the excessive wealth in which you were raised rot out your core. You’ve shaped a life around trust, love and service, although you were abused, neglected and abandoned. With such a will, you know you’ll overcome the rest.

Whatever you believe with regards to how we become who we are – DNA, geography, nurture, human will – there’s something new to consider. Its implications are huge. I talked my husband’s ear off while we jogged and walked the dusty paths of Provence last week, an apricot sunrise oozing over the silver-sage shimmer of olive trees. Here’s the thing:

All those notions are right, partially.  Our genetic imprint is central to, but not exclusively responsible for, who we are.  DNA is not rigid.  It is smudgy. It morphs. DNA is a pliable genome, a wobbly ladder. How does it change?  Through social processes. That includes our zip code, our relationships, and our choices.

The study of epigenetics (the interplay of biological and social processes on our genes) suggests convincingly that both our immediate and intimate environments as well as our will (choices) can override our genetic code, or at least change that code markedly.  Like you, maybe, I wasn’t surprised to learn this, since I’ve seen it in myself and in others. Change is possible, even change on the deepest cellular levels, the change and evolution of one’s nature. It’s just nice to find scientific research to validate my personal convictions.

“People used to think that once your epigenetic code was laid down in early development, that was it for life,” says Moshe Szyf, of McGill University in Montreal. “But life is changing all the time, and the epigenetic code that controls your DNA is turning out to be the mechanism through which we change along with it. Epigenetics tells us that little things in life can have an effect of great magnitude.”

What does this mean? This means we don’t only have some control over our genetic legacy, but we carry a great deal of responsibility.  As one researcher notes:

“Epigenetics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome. . .Before, genes predetermined outcomes. Now everything we do—everything we eat or smoke—can affect our gene expression and that of future generations. Epigenetics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics.”

With Mom, Sénanque abby.

With Mom, Sénanque abby. No, she and I did not plan our matchy-matchy outifts.

So! . . .

Sooooo . . . Where did I arrive at the end of this long Provençal walk?  And what conclusions can we draw from studies of DNA, nature, nurture and epigenetics?

First, it’s all fascinating, and second, I’m not done discussing it here on the blog.

Lastly, for me it is, as are all things, understood best in its personal application, which is where I’ll end today:

I love my parents.  How can I even begin to express the ferocity, the devouring and sweet knee-buckling tenderness I have for them? I love them. Even if for the cynic this means, maybe, I’m merely loving myself as their genetic reflection.

(What. Ever.)

In all reverence and daughterly clumsiness, I thank my parents, married 56 years this month, for being who they are, for finding one another all those years ago, for remaining together and devoted to us children (and our children, and their children to come) all these long years.

I honor them – and the whole spiraling ladder of their parents before them – for watching carefully not only what they did or didn’t smoke and eat, but what they imbibed and ingested symbolically.  The woman I am is, to a great extent, their human and spiritual epigenetic imprint, indebted eternally to them. They’ve kept a tight grip and held an intense (though sometimes bloodshot) eye on the road, as we’ve cruised this good life together.

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Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad.

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How are you a hybrid of your parents? Grandparents? Culture(s)? Teachers? Mentors?

What other factors influence your nature/spirit/humanity?

Leave a note for your parents here, and copy them on this post!

My Christmas Sermon, given December 2014, in Frankfurt, Germany

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.

In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.

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Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.

Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.

Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.

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You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.

It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.

What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.

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Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.

My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.

  • As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”

  • I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.

Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.

  • I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.

No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.

  • And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.

I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.

  • And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.

“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

—(John 3:16)

And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”

It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.

After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.

There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.

I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.

And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.

We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.

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Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?

That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.

As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”

Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.

But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.

But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.

I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.

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O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.

In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.

There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.

So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.

And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.

Déjà Vu: Why Melissa Writes –– or Doesn’t–– of Passage

I could swear you’ve been here with me before. And before that.

June 30, 2011, Singapore

You remember? I was sitting on this same chair, tapping on this same laptop, pushed up to this same desk. Around me worked a team of moving men, preparing to ship our life (and file upon file of a yet-to-be-written but contracted book, Global Mom: A Memoir) off to a new life in Switzerland.

At the same time and as part of that pre-publication ramp-up, I was advised to launch this blog right away because the whole conceit of Global Mom was based on moving, moving internationally, moving internationally often and at times unexpectedly, and doing all that while raising a family of global citizens. On this blog, I was to take you with me, real-time. Show you some of the guts of global momming. Strap you to my forehead the way sky divers strap on Go-Pros and shu-weeeeeeee! Take you for a swift transglobal spin. Prepare you for that thud-and-roll landing.

What you didn’t see, I’m afraid, was the scary stuff, all the gum-flapping and limb-flopping that was going on behind the camera. As you who’ve done any of the following know, 1) raising a family takes one’s absolutely full concentration, 2) moving that family to a new country demands even more of one’s absolutely full concentration 3) helping your family adjust and integrate once in a new country requires that much more concentration, and 4) writing and promoting a book in the midst of all that…Well, just cue non-stop gum-flap, limb-flop.

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That lasted a year. I released Global Mom a year after leaving Singapore, and just when I felt maybe things were getting steady enough for my children here on the idyllic Swiss front, I signed a contract to write and publish my second book, On Loss and Living Onward.

Just as that book went to press last spring, we announced we’d be moving again. Unlike the previous move triggered by a restructuring of international headquarters, this relocation was wholly our initiative, one we’d been deliberating for some time.  We knew we needed to remove our youngest from a school environment that was unhealthy for him and causing our family much heartache (to frame it in the very gentlest terms.) Gum-flapping and limb-flopping don’t come anywhere close.

June 30, 2014, Switzerland

There’s a moving team milling through my house as I type. Same chair, same laptop, same desk. This week alone, I’ve seen my piano, refrigerator and Norwegian farm table go out the carmine red door of my soft yellow Swiss village home with is green shutters, its plump tufts of lavender, and tumbling velvet geraniums. Such a pretty, idyllic picture. Yet there’s sorrow and fatigue creasing the corners of my eyes. Two deep breaths, and I fill my lungs with optimism and gratitude. I work alongside men –– one French, one Swiss, one Kosovoan––packing our lives in cardboard, padding my concerns in bubble wrap, and heading things in a big metal box with wheels northward. To Frankfurt.

View out my office window

View out of my office window

My husband has long since preceded us to Germany, where he’s been living weeks-over in a sterile hotel room as he starts up a new job. One moment, I’m talking with a Jean-Michel about shutting down our Swiss/French phone lines; the next, I’m talking with a Johann or a Manfred about opening a German bank account.  Our Claire is at my side, mothering her brothers and helping me negotiate the 17th move of my married life. Luc is choosing classes online for what will be a German international school. Dalton, now 18,  is practicing his cockney accent and reworking his Singaporean Mandarin for when he heads in August to South London for a two-year mission for our church.

You remember? You’re right. We’ve been here before.

Dalton

Dalton

June 30, 2007, Paris

A moving team is arguing about how to get our massive Norwegian table out of our Paris apartment. I’m refereeing. Randall’s been living in Germany for several months already, starting his new job while we finish the school year and an eight-year French epoch. Dalton and Luc, 11 and 7, are finishing their French elementary school and once in a while I drop a German phrase or two into our talks, just to prep them for the next phase in our lives. Claire, almost 16, is inseparable from our 18-year-old Parker, who’s just graduated from ASP (the American School of Paris) and is heading tomorrow for a summer of leadership courses at college in the States. He’ll use the next months to complete the applications to serve a two-year mission for our church. Come winter.

Parker

Parker

Sorrow, fatigue. Deep breaths. Optimism, gratitude.  Days are spent shutting down French phone lines and opening up German bank accounts.  My daily discipline of writing so-and-so many pages? I set it aside, knowing I only have a few weeks left with all of us together.  How we are. The all of us. Like this. Sure, I’ll see Parker over the summer. We’ve made those plans. And he’ll come to us in Germany over Christmas to stay for a few weeks before launching out as a missionary. But still. I only want to be with him. The sails of life are stretched taut with stress, but also with gusts of hope, and we’re cruising on momentum, headlong into the cresting, broad, blue seas.

June 21, 2014, Paris

“We’re pleased to welcome the family of Parker Bradford to today’s ceremony. We’ve invited their son Dalton to the stage.”

A dark blonde, blue-eyed kid wearing a white shirt, navy suit and his big brother’s tie strides up to the school administrator at the mic. It’s the same gentleman, a Mr. H., who’d handed Parker his diploma seven years earlier. Now, he hands Dalton a heavy plaque with his brother’s name engraved in brass and in ornate letters.

The kid blushes. His face is neither smiling nor frowning, but hangs between emotions. Or above them. He shifts from foot to foot. The sibling resemblance is eerie.

“Dalton, like all of you here,” says Mr. H., “has just graduated from high school, only in Geneva. He’ll be presenting the Parker Bradford Spirit Award to this year’s graduating senior who best embodies the qualities of tolerance, enthusiasm and buoyancy that typified Parker, Dalton’s older brother. Parker was a student here at ASP for eight years.  One month after graduating in June of 2007––just like you’re graduating today––Parker lost his life while trying to save a college classmate from drowning.”

The blonde brother stares out over an audience of quiet faculty and families. I’m in the back-most row in a corner, yet can hear––can nearly feel––his heart beating. I tuck my chin to my chest.

I’m struck in that moment by the flaccidity of words, how they fool only those who trust words to convey the true proportion of certain truths, realities simply too vast for language. I’m sobered by how vulnerable that whole auditorium full of families is, but how they do not know it. How luminous the boy Justin is to whom the Parker Bradford Spirit Award is given. How magnanimous the school has been to our family, how empathetic. How utterly vital a healthy school community is for families, especially those in transition. How we could have used that these last two years.

Above all, I’m struck by how quickly it’s over––the presentation of the award itself, the graduation, the passage, this life.

How I have been here before. How everything is different.

How, because everything is different, I vow to do things differently this time.

How, for this passage, I’ll truly be there for my family.  

Which means that for a little while at least –– for however long it takes –– I won’t be here.

On the Pont des Arts, Paris.

On the Pont des Arts, Paris, before the bridge became weighted with the love locks that distinguish it today.

 

 

 

 

One Last Time On Loss and Living Onward

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

This is post #199. In a couple of days, I’ll give you my final and 200th post. Between now and then, I invite you to order and read this book. :-)

On Loss & Living Onward came to be over months of unprecedented searching and researching. By “searching,” I mean grieving, which, after the initial implosion of traumatic loss, is intense, prolonged yearning.

Yes, I was searching.  Not for release from grief or its pain, but specifically for Parker, for God, for community, for truth, for understanding, for strength, for light.  Sometimes, for air.

And I was researching. From the introduction to On Loss:

“…Every morning when the children left for school and Randall left for the office or for the airport, I turned to my daily pattern of digging and searching amid piles of books spread about me in a circular mountain range. I sat cross-legged on the floor with sometimes twenty books open at once: Testaments, both Old and New and other scriptures of my faith; a poetry anthology; a modern French novel; a German lyric; a prophet’s or pioneer’s personal journal; a Norwegian memoir; a commentary on the book of Job; a stack of professional journals on parental grief; collected talks from great spiritual leaders past and present and from the East to the West; discourses from Plutarch and Plato; my Riverside Shakespeare; accounts of Holocaust survivors, 9/11 survivors, tsunami survivors; and Parker’s own words, which we have treasured in his journals, poetry, school essays, letters, and lyrics.

Oh. And my laptop.

For hours to months on end, I went spelunking through others’ words. When someone’s words hit the bedrock of the Spirit, I knew it in half a breath. There were revelatory moments when a correct insight stunned me to immediate tears or, more often, head-to-toe stillness. At times my heart would leap a hurdle or my eyes would stretch wide open; other times I would hold my breath or exhale audibly in gratitude. Whatever my physical and intellectual response, every time a writer got it, I’d quickly type those words into my files.

Unswerving, I kept at it—mining, sifting, cataloging; grieving, mourning, learning, writing; adapting. While I never found the one book that for me addressed the desperate underside of grief as well as the magnificent promise of the loving bond that endures and evolves despite physical separation, I was (to my surprise) on my way to writing one.

And today—almost seven years after Parker was taken in an early harvest that plowed our souls right open—I finished this book. I lovingly pass it on to you.”

 

 

One Last Time from Global Mom

As I approach my 200th and final post here at Melissa Writes of Passage, I want to share one last time with you the reason I began blogging in the first place: This book below.

We’re heading into an intense passage, we global nomadic Bradfords, with a new job in a new country, and each of our children heading in different directions geographically and metaphorically. In order to navigate this period I need focus, focus, focus. When our family has eventually found its bearings in our new life in Frankfurt, Germany beginning late this summer, I’ll be establishing my new, beautiful author website.  It will merge channels for  my books as well as all forthcoming writing projects alongside any public appearances and readers/audience reviews.  There, you’ll also find my regular blogpost-like essays. I hope you’ll come back to it all golden and zen-ified after a peaceful summer vacation.

In the meantime: thank you for reading my first book. In the next post, #199, I’ll post a reminder of my second book. And finally, in blogpost #200, I’ll summarize what these two years of blogging and publishing have meant to me and my family. Come back then, if only to let me know what lies in store for you over your summer!

Much warmth to my friends and readers–

Melissa

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