International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 6; College Credit?

My first university professor taught a course on Medieval Europe while wearing house slippers and nursing a tall mug of Postum. He did this while standing in front of the blaze we students had built in the fireplace of the former drinking hall of a converted, ochre yellow farm manor – the Gasthof Zieglau – in a village called Elsbethen-bei-Salzburg. Yes, this was Austria, so as you correctly suspected, outside the lecture hall windows there were actually goats grazing. . . and lonely goatherds lazing.

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

This professor (we called him Herr Doktor Professor) ate all of his meals with his 35 students. But to me, his only 14-year-old pupil, he gave a weekly allowance, daily personal advice, and a nightly bedtime kiss. He was my Dad.

Herr Doktor in Madrid

Herr Doktor Professor Dalton in Madrid

On three occasions during my upbringing, my Dad, a university professor, and my mother, a university instructor, and three or four other faculty members, led “Semesters Abroad” in Europe. These were concentrated foreign study experiences where Herr und Frau Doktor Professor’s children got the perks of not only tagging along on travels, but also taking college courses. Maybe not surprisingly, I did as well or better in those college courses than in most I took in high school. At least I liked them more.  I was challenged, respected, turned on to learning, free from the math gulag, and I racked up both high school and college credit.

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof's Kaminzimmer

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof’s Kaminzimmer

When students of the full IB diploma complete two full years of rigorous pre-university training –no house slippers, goats or paternal kisses – it is not always guaranteed that they will receive university credit. I first became aware of this over 15 years ago, when I met a family in France whose daughter, an excellent IB student, had been given a generous scholarship to large private university in the US.  After a whole year battling with admissions and administrators, she had still not been given college credit for any of her three Higher Level courses (in which she’d done exceptionally well.) Her Standard Level IB courses were not even taken into consideration for college credit.

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

As explanation: full IB students are required to take six two-year courses, three of which are Higher Level; three of which are Standard Level.  Our Dalton, as a real-life example, is currently in Higher Level History, English and French, and Standard Level Math, Biology and German courses. For an idea of the rigor of a Standard Level course, his last German assignment was to write, (in German, obviously) a researched essay on the United Nations High Council for Refugees.  Standard stuff. In addition to those HL and SL courses, Full IB diploma candidates take a TOK  or Theory of Knowledge course, write a research / TOK paper, complete an EE  or Extended Essay of 4,000 words, and show initiative in doing substantial (hours upon hours of) Creative, Active and Service projects, which must be of an approved nature and then catalogued in journal form. There are also frequent IA’s, or Internal Assessments, similar to midterm exams.

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London. . .

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London

Taking all of that into consideration, you can understand how aggravating it was for this full IB student from France to have to fight for university credit for her HL IB courses (let alone her SL IB courses.) Worse, though, was learning that her roommates, who had graduated from monolingual schools, were given without as much as a twitch of an eyelid college credit for any and all of their AP courses.

First visit to the Loire Valley

First visit to the Loire Valley

And are these bizarre, isolated scenarios? Apparently not, if you read this, from which the following quote is pulled:

Lisa McLoughlin … is a parent, real estate broker and journalist who is an acidic opponent of the IB program at Locust Valley High School on Long Island’s North Shore, and of IB in general. She has become, in my view, the liveliest and most intelligent IB critic in the country. I devoted a chapter to her in my 2005 book, “Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools.” We still communicate often by e-mail. Jay Matthews

Any program like IB that is important for our children needs thoughtful hecklers like McLoughlin. She told the other Admissions 101 participants that schools should junk IB in favor of AP because it costs more than AP and does not deliver college credits with the certainty and consistency of AP. Other discussion group members said their experience with IB convinced them that it was more challenging and deeper than AP. One well-informed discussant, OscarWilde, who appears to be a college professor, quoted in detail favorable assessments of IB students from several well-known colleges.

Discovering Renoir

Discovering Renoir

Or this:

Normally three of the IB program areas are studied at the “higher level,” which is considered equivalent to college work. Students typically must attain at least a score of 5 out of 7 points on an exam for a higher-level course to be eligible for college credit. Most colleges recognize the academic value provided by the rigors of the IB program, but each college has its own policies about granting credit for IB exams.

Or this:

Another consideration to keep in mind is that the more selective colleges often give college credit only for IB classes taken at the “Higher Level” (“HL” in IB lingo). IB students take three classes at that level and the rest at the Standard Level (“SL”). Some colleges give credit only for IB exam scores of 7 (the top); some for lower scores. Thus, even the most outstanding students may only get college credit in three areas, while AP students could end up with credit in many more subjects, depending on how many AP classes the student takes, how he fares on the exams, and what the college’s credit policy is. Some parents and students report that they have to jump through more hoops for IB credit than for AP credit, especially when students are not at the most selective colleges. In any case, once you start investigating AP and IB credit policies, you may feel like you need Cal Tech degree just to figure it all out. Each college seems to somehow manage to come up with an AP/IB credit-awarding system that is just a tad different than the next guy’s!

Or this:

The AP courses are accepted at virtually all U.S. colleges and universities, while the IB program has more limited acceptance within the U.S. but is growing in popularity.

Discovering Degas

Discovering Degas

***

I’ve kept a (sometimes twitching) eye on the patterns of university admissions across the US, and have been encouraged over the last decade to see that the IB, as it gains familiarity (if not yet out-and-out popularity) in US secondary schools, is becoming a known entity to college admissions personnel.  Whether this trend will continue, and whether those now completing full IB programs will benefit from such change is yet to be seen.

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

Moved Around, Ripped Out, Messed Up: Has This International Life Damaged My Children?

This year it hit me broadside.

Standing in my entryway, eagerly opening up holiday greeting cards from around the world, I held a family Christmas collage from a friend in my hands. There they were: the crowds of folks gathered for one child’s wedding; a smiling circle cheering another child’s academic achievement; lines of friends there for another child’s community concert. I skimmed the lines about neighbors and friends who rushed in when there was a crisis, and wiped my forehead, now pumping hot blood, astonished by my gut reaction.

Pain. Pain for my children.

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I knew my friend was only sharing her normal, everyday life.  What I read wasn’t shimmering with the exceptional, not in her mind, I’m sure.  It was an obviously normal life to her, probably, a life spent in one spot with lifelong connections, familial solidarity and children held sturdy by that kind of  ballast.  Skimming, though, I saw strong, bold lines that plumb through layers and layers of years and years of rock solid support and shared common experience.

Then, as if someone pulled the plug on the parquet floor beneath me, that sensation hit. And I sank.

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It’s there, in that sunken place, that I developed a T.I.C.K.

Or at least I developed the concept of one and made up the acronym for it.

T.I.C.K.? You’ve probably never heard of it, although maybe you’ve heard of a TCK, or a Third Culture Kid. That’s a child who’s spent the dominant portion of her upbringing in a culture/language/geography other than that of her parents.

TICK is something else, and may be a little more complicated than a TCK. A TICK is a Transient International Composite Kid.

That, ladies and gentlemen, would be my bundle.

Of joy.

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Not only are my kids TCKs, (they’ve spent virtually all  their developmental years in a culture/language/geography other than their parents’ native one), but they’re TICKs, too, having spent their entire lives moving and moving. And moving again. And not merely from one side of a city to another. Nor from one side of a state nor side of one country to another.  They’ve moved from one side of the cultural spectrum to another: Hong Kong, Norway, two different locations in France, America, Germany, Singapore, and now Switzerland.

What does that kind of perpetual and far-flung transience mean for a child? For a teenager? For a young adult? It means multilingual proficiency (about which I’ve just written.)  It means adaptability, flexibility, courage, ability to make friends with your corner lamp post. It means resilience. It means, as many TICKs will tell you, an unusually tight bond as a family. (You’ve gone through quite a lot together). It can mean various positives like increased tolerance, motivation, independence. It can mean you know many things firsthand that others know only virtually.

Unquestionably, there’s a lot gained from traipsing through so much diversity and upheaval. But lately. . . I am tallying the costs. And they are painful to me.

What might those costs be?

Let me give you an idea by showcasing just one of our four, Dalton Haakon Bradford.

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Dalton is now seventeen, a “Year 12” in his international bilingual school here on outskirts of Geneva, or, according to the US system, a high school junior.  In these 17 years, he’s attended a Norwegian preschool…

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A French bilingual preschool…

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An American international kindergarten, an American public 1st grade, a French bilingual primary school…

073A German international school…

088a Singapore-based American international school, and now the Swiss bilingual school from which he will graduate a year from now.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m adding up 8 different approaches to academic instruction, and 4 distinct classroom languages. What you can’t see in that tally are all the friends made and lost. All the homes adapted to and emptied. All the programs begun yet suddenly dropped. All the teachers who had to get to know this kid from ground up, who didn’t know his strength or quirks or particular needs. All the opportunities to audition or compete or enter, lost because, whooops, we can’t promise we’ll be here for that. All the essential secrets held under the coat like a vat of churning lava, because there is no gathered context out of which strangers can interpret him.

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

Those kinds of costs. Let’s let our TICK speak about them for himself.

So, Dalton Bradford: What, in your opinion, have been the costs of this nomadic, international life? 

1) I’ve forfeited familiarity and comfort. More times than I can count, I’ve been the only new kid (or one of the few) in my class, and that has sometimes meant the only one not quite yet speaking the language of instruction. Seems I’m always in the figuring-out phase, just getting my mind organized in a new culture, not to mention a whole new school system and student body. This means my ramp-up time to becoming efficient in a new school costs me academic and social ease.

Versailles, France.

Versailles, France.

2) I’ve had to say goodbye to dozens of friends. Over a dozen times.  This is just hard. It’s gotten easier to keep in touch via FB and Skype, but still virtual’s not the same.  They just aren’t here with me. This repeated separation makes it harder to invest in relationships. I always know either I or they will eventually be leaving. OR, I feel I have to invest in relationships super quickly, because I never know how much time I’ll have. In my current school where there’s only a 7% turnover in the student body from year to year, I’m one of the few who hasn’t been here for most of my education, even all 12 years. That’s danged hard to penetrate.

Croissy-sur Seine, France

Croissy-sur-Seine, France

3) It’s so hard to get academic traction. When you’re not certain how long you’re going to stay in a country, it’s hard to plan on your academic curriculum.  When you can’t plan, you can’t count on completing courses or taking them through their end with certain teachers, then you also can’t commit to being around the next year for certain activities. This was so hard when we moved from Singapore, because I’d just made real strides in the theater department, had a fabulous French instructor, was cruising in Mandarin, and then we suddenly left. I’d banked on being  heavily involved in theater, French and Mandarin the next year. There’s hardly a theater department where I am now. And now I’m the one who helps tutor Mandarin.

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

4) Sometimes others hold back from investing in a friendship with you because they know you’ll be leaving anyway. I’ve heard this in church and school, that others who are locals expect we’ll leave soon anyway, and so why get close? Because of this, they sometimes keep their distance.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia

5) Sometimes I question my identity. Am I American? European? International?  Who am I? I don’t know the first  thing about American TV, football, baseball, even a lot of the daily slang. But I carry a US passport and English is my mother tongue.  Where do I fit in, and where can I count on being understood? Where will my life experiences be valued and not criticized or pigeonholed? Some people who’ve never lived internationally assume all sorts of things about this “luxurious”, “pampered”, “exotic” lifestyle, and they also question your patriotism. (Once, I had to explain to a kid that an expatriate was not an ex-patriot. Yeah, like that was cool.)

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

6) Unlike kids who grow up their whole lives in one place, I struggle to advance and establish myself in extra curricular activities. For example, coaches or instructors or music teachers need to have known you from the year before in order to put you on a team or cast you in the play or in the orchestra.  I’ve been the new kid so much, I get passed up and can’t compete with the ones who’ve established themselves with coaches and mentors over years.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

7) Depending on where you go to University, you might get slammed with major culture shock. I remember how disoriented Claire [my older sister] was her first year at university.  She had a great time eventually, but she talked about always feeling she was looking at the experience from the outside-in. There were attitudes and even language usage she did not “get” at all.  After a year, thanks to a great roommate and some key professors, she had a positive experience. I wonder what the adjustment will be like for me.

Nesøya, Norge

Nesøya, Norge

8) You miss on certain maturation experiences growing up like this. Because I don’t live in one place, I can’t apply for summer jobs in the place in the US where I usually vacation only three weeks per year, so I don’t learn about that kind of responsibility like punching a time card, taking orders, reporting to a boss, earning and saving money. I won’t have  a driver’s license until way after the normal US kid has his, so sometimes when I visit the US I feel less mature than all those kids who’ve been driving and holding down jobs since they were 16. Some even get cars when they’re 16! That’s completely unthinkable in my world. (Getting a license in Europe takes private schooling, loads of money, and buying a car is many times more expensive that doing so in the US.)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton's 16th birthday)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton’s 16th birthday)

Dancing through the night of his Sweet Sixteen, with the Maasai

Dancing with the Maasai through the night of his Sweet Sixteen

9) My life experiences – learning languages, working through serial major changes, gaining cultural fluency, whatever– don’t necessarily translate into high college entrance exam scores. And my schools grade much much harder than most public US schools do. The classes are literally like college classes, and getting an “A” is rare, even for top students. What I’ve spent a lot of energy managing has at times been a distraction from the basics of schooling. It takes a lot of work just figuring out your life again after moving to a new country – finding the right teachers, getting the right group of friends, I’ve done math in three different academic styles with their different approaches to graphing stuff, even – and when you slap on top of that the fact that you’re being schooled in a whole new language, it’s…Well it’s just so much more complicated and demanding.  But you can’t explain all that on the SAT.

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

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Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

10)My major loss is a secret to nearly everyone I know now.  When I was 11 years old I lost my oldest brother, Parker. I was there in the ICU when he took his last breath.  This huge part of who I am was unknown to the kids at the German school I walked into 2 weeks after my brother’s funeral. Ever since then, I’ve carried this loss with me, always among strangers. That is one of the hardest things in my life, and it hurts me every day in some way, even today, almost six years later.

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

It’s just so hard when the people all around you don’t know your story. I think sometimes about other kids who’ve lived in one place and who’ve lost favorite siblings, and what it must be like to just know that people around you know. They understand things about you that are the very core of who you are.  I’m so jealous of that. This thing that’s enormous for me is hidden from everyone in my surroundings. I hate that. An example: This year (another new school, right?), my English teacher announced a surprise writing assignment that had to do with death.  I totally choked. I froze and couldn’t even think straight.  I felt fuzzy and nauseated.  Normally, I’m a really strong writer – it’s my gift, many teachers say – but I went totally blank and cold.  I had to leave the room. Who can blame my teacher, though?

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Like who can blame the biology teacher that first month Claire [my older sister] arrived at our new school in Germany? He held this big class-long debate on the ethical implications of sustaining life on a ventilator when a patient is in a deep coma. The debate went on and on, with students (who didn’t know Claire or her story) really getting into it. Didn’t Claire have to run out of the class, Mom, and throw up in the closest bathroom?

Yeah. Right. She did. You can say there are hard aspects.

**

Our two children still at home.

Our two children still at home.

It was February when I finally stored away my holiday greeting cards this year. I’d read through them a couple of times, mesmerized by the tokens of those distant, stable lifestyles my children will never know.  I took a breath. I put them away.  And just when that parquet entry floor began feeling a little sturdier beneath my feet, I discovered that what I’d thought were normal adolescent blips, were actually signs that my boys were having significant (read: what have we done moving our kids here?!) adjustment issues. These concerns shook our world so much, my entry parquet floor practically sprouted grooves.

I think I’ll have to write a sequel to Global Mom: A Memoir.

TICK Mom: A Confession

**

What else could you add to this list of costs of a TICK lifestyle?

What suggestions would you make to a TICK like Dalton?

What suggestions would you make to the parent of a TICK?

Do any of these costs surprise you? What do they reveal about what we know or don’t know about another’s life?

Wise Words on Words: Talking About Multilingualism

How many languages do you think are represented in this group shot with my friends?

How many languages do you think are represented in this group shot with my  friends?

In my recent post about How To Raise A Multilingual Child, I described a bit of our family’s 20 years of living in many different countries where, for the sake of survival as well as for integration (which is ever my goal; I always want to be mistaken for a native), we have learned to speak a number of languages.

This is no big deal. At all. Hardly worth licking your lips at when you’re a European or Asian or African.  My friends from those cultures just nod (and yawn) as I tick off what few tongues we’ve learned to speak. Why? Because they’re all speaking four or five as a matter of course.

Mmmm. Vegetarian Roti Prata at my favorite dive in Singapore.

Mmmm. Vegetarian roti prata at my favorite dive in Singapore.

(My dearest Indonesian friend back in Singapore speaks Bahasa and six other distinct Indonesian dialects.  She also makes her way through in Mandarin. And Hokkien.  To boot, our relationship is in English.)

In such a broad world context, there’s simply no getting snooty about speaking a couple of languages. In truth, these friends of mine from all over the place wonder out loud why my Mandarin isn’t a whole lot better.

The Yu Gong, or old men, gathered in Singapore's Chinatown.

The Yu Gong, or old men, gathered in Singapore’s Chinatown.

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Disclaimer: I’m finding it hard to keep encircled by a Mandarin-speaking community while living here in French-speaking Switzerland.  And while in Singapore, I never lived in full Mandarin immersion. Yeah. That’s right. I have this whole long fancy list of excuses!

Cute hiking buddy (but poor conversation partners) on Bukit Timah Hill in Singapore

Cute hiking buddy (but poor conversation partner) on Bukit Timah Hill in Singapore

While I whip up some more posts on the pluses and minuses of multilingualism and nomadic multicultural living, you might want to stop in at Ute’s lovely blog

If you are serious about investigating expatriate life and learning what its foundational demands and rewards are; if you are a parent who longs to offer a broad world view to your children; if you just want to dialogue with someone who is a seasoned world citizen, then I suggest you stop in and chat with Ute.

Otherwise, there’s me. I love your visits, too!

Thank you for visiting the Bradfords. Here, and wherever we are in the world.

Thank you for visiting the Bradfords. Here, and wherever we are in the world.

Anyone Can Love a Language. . .

As I said, lots of people are talking about languages, and doing so in different languages.

My last post (which seems to have struck a chord with a few of you), was referenced in this following excellent post. And so here’s a reblog for you.

Anyone can learn a language, but not always in a classroom.

Thank you, Loving Language!

How many (and which) languages are spoken among these four girlfriends living in Geneva, Switzerland? (Answer in italics at the bottom.)

How many (and which) languages are spoken among these four girlfriends living in Geneva, Switzerland?

Ten: English, French, High German, Swiss German, Norwegian, Russian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish.  Oh.  And Urdu.

Come With Global Mom To London!

Back Camera

So many things happening in June, our dense ramp-up phase leading to the July release of Global Mom: A Memoir. 

This month I’ll introduce you to Christopher, my  publisher extraordinaire, and Familius, the cutting-edge media company.

You’ll meet Maggie, my word surgeon editor.

I’ll tell you all about Crystal and Kim, my super-savvy public relations team from BookSparks PR, who’ve thrown some lighter fluid on the charcoals to make a bonfire out of this book release. We’re linking to a Facebook page just for Global Mom: A Memoir, and I’ll be (gulp) Twitter-pating my life.

At about the same time all this is happening, you’re going to meet a whole string of friends via a series of vlog visits, whose stories (global, familial, nomadic and unedited) will give you an honest portrait of what it is about this kind of life that, well, keeps us living it.

(Why not be one of the first to subscribe to my YouTube channel? Go ahead.  I’ll wait here while you pop over there and click.)

With every blog and vlog, I’ll tell you about the blessings and stressings of living globally, but right now we’ll focus specifically on the peculiarities of living Swissly. In each vlog I’ll show you around my current Swiss stomping grounds. It’s truly one big technicolor wrap-around postcard.  Really worth your visit.

And if you stick here with me, I’m thinking of taking you  – should I give this away?  Oh, alright – I might just tuck you in my glove compartment and drive with you up to Paris.

But first, come with me to another magnificent metropolis, one of the most diverse places on the planet:

Holy Friday Procession, Warsaw

My last post from Easter Week in Poland.

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Poland (March 2013) 048

Why was I determined to bring my family to Poland during Easter? From a previous post, you know we’d considered going to a warmer, closer place for that week. Italy, for instance. Just across the fence from where we live in Switzerland. Or Spain, only an eight hour drive. Southern France, four hours even with a couple of rest stops. There were clearly options.

But I was set on Poland. Colder, farther, reputedly austere, and expecting an unseasonably late squall.

If you’re new to this blog, you might think I wanted to visit Poland because it’s overwhelmingly Catholic, and given my dozens upon dozens of cathedral photos – Oh. You noticed all the cathedrals? – you think I must be Catholic, too.

I’m not.

(Devoted Christian and by nature something my close friends call “spiritual.” But not Catholic.)

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth's surface.

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth’s surface. Largest salt mines on earth lie outside of Krakow.

Neither am I Jewish. Although you’d think from all the posts on my fascination with things Jewish that I must have been bat mitzvahed. I’ve spent much of my adult life studying Jewish history and literature, particularly literature born of the Holocaust, (and yes, I’ve sung at my share of bat mitzvahs), but no, I’m not Jewish. I didn’t go to Poland only because of its once considerable Jewish population.

Warsaw's Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into crowded freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other camps

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other death camps

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

I went to Poland because my spirit feels drawn to the history – both devoutly Christian and devoutly Jewish – and the energetic culture that has arisen from that complex, contrapuntal foundation. Through the week spent traveling, I revisited my archives of Polish and eastern European writings associated with the Holocaust. Late on Holy Friday evening in Warsaw, in fact, I was sitting in my pajamas in bed in our hotel room reading some of these poems. The boys were over there, listening to iTunes; Randall was over there, working on his lap top. And I was in the middle of this especially sparse verse:

Crucifixion
Anna Akhmatova
Translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
1940-1943

I
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me. . .”

II
Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed,
His dear disciple, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes. Nobody dared.

**

. . .And right about there from somewhere behind or above or outside, I heard (I thought) an angelic chorus.

In my head?

(Okay.  I’m not that spiritual.)

“Hon?” I spoke lowly. “Are you hearing – ?”

My husband looked up from his work. “Whuh?”

“You hearing. . .? Okay seriously. Are you…? Hearing. . .Is it just me?”

Then I heard a full musical phrase. Randall, however, did not.

So I swung my legs out of bed, and ran to the window. I waved to Randall to come quickly.  Bring his iPhone. We saw this:

Dalton rushed out the door pulling on his coat and slinging a camera around his neck. He arrived at ground level just as this happened:

From the street, he was able to capture these images:

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In the context of all we were ingesting, with the backdrop of all I have shared in the last posts – Final Solutions, genocide, death marches, gas chambers, freight trains and firing walls, toppled statues and draped Swastika banners – against that incomprehensibly murderous epoch, what can we make of this street scene?

What meaning or relative value is there in a procession where hundreds of people, strangers to one another mostly, simply drop to their knees and worship? On the icy asphalt, in some odd splotch of street lamp, a child in the arms or crutches under the arms – what practical, verifiable, enduring, elevating purpose is there in getting down on one’s knees? In bowing one’s head? In submitting oneself to something as “insubstantial”  (again, considering the immeasurable loss and the evil engendered by the Holocaust) something as impractical, one might say, as is faith?

I will not answer that here.

But I’ll leave you with this poem. First, the poet’s notes:

In 1945, during the big resettlements of population at the end of World War II, my family left Lithuania and was assigned quarters near Danzig (Gdansk [in northern Poland]) in a house belonging to a German peasant family. Only one old German woman remained in the house. She fell ill with typhus and there was nobody to take care of her. In spite of admonitions motivated partly by universal hatred for the Germans, my mother nursed her, became ill herself, and died.

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With Her
Czeslaw Milosz
translated from the Polish by Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz

Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
As I attend early Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel according to Mark
About a little girl to whom He said: “Talitha cumi!”
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
in a fearful unity with her, with her pain of dying,
In a village near Danzig, in a dark November,
When both the mournful Germans, old men and women,
And the evacuees from Lithuania would fall ill with typhus.
Be with me, I say to her, my time has been short.
Your words are now mine, deep inside me:
“It all seems now to have been a dream.”

Birkenau: Metropolis of Death

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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: Images and Words

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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.

Mortifigation

You didn’t notice, but throughout the last year and in probably more ways than one, the city of Nîmes touched your life.

This Provençal city, once known as a jewel of the Gallo-Roman empire (having already been a jewel among Celtic and Bronze Age settlements), enjoyed a long period of affluence and influence exemplified in the elegant  Maison Carrée,

The stunning and nearby Pont du Gard aqueduct,

And the Nîmes amphitheater.

All three landmarks still stand, and the arena is still in active use today.

And how does any of this touch your life, you wonder?  Maybe you attended a bullfight in the arena?

Or a rock concert? (Dire Straits? Björk, Justice, Elton John, Radiohead, Blink 182. . .?)  Bullfights and rock concerts are regulars on the Nîmes arena’s calendar of events.

You didn’t?

Still, Nîmes touched your life at least figuratively. I’ll explain: 

The amphitheatre, built between the 1st and 2nd centuries at the height of Roman opulence and power, was one of the original venues for spectacular shows of — how should I put this delicately? — systematized, government-endorsed, culturally-engrained, fabulously-popular blood sport.

When Nimes’ importance was at its apex, this place was a slaughterhouse. Make that a slaughterhouse for voyeurs.  Historians estimate that tens of thousands of animals and even more humans died cruel deaths in arenas like this one in Nimes, built expressly for gladiatorial gaming.

 As well as being a marvel of engineering, it became a famous gathering place for satisfying blood lust. Grisly but glamorized, the one-on-one combats drew crowds of 24,000 into its marble and gloriously ornamented 34 terraces.  Gladiators — both men and women, did you know that? You’ve heard of the Amazones? — spent their short lives in training, and though life expectancy was bleak (few lived past 30; most died in their early 20’s), it was considered an honor to fight in this arena.  It was in the fight to the death – and death was the one sure thing in the ring — that you attained some scrap of glory.  This, by proving your stoicism.

“He vows to endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword.” 

(The gladiator’s oath as cited by Petronius)

And from a scholar of Roman history:

The gladiator held a morbid fascination for the ancient Romans. Their blood was considered a remedy against impotence, and the bride whose hair had been parted by the spear of a defeated gladiator was thought to enjoy a fertile married life. Although their lives were brutal and short, gladiators often were admired for their bravery, endurance, and willingness to die. In forfeiting their lives in the arena, the gladiator was thought to honor the audience, and glory was what it could offer in return. They were depicted in mosaics, on lamps and funerary monuments, and were the object of graffiti—in this case, boasts written by the gladiators themselves: “Celadus the Thracian, thrice victor and thrice crowned, the young girls’ heart-throb” and “Crescens the Netter of young girls by night.” But, even in victory, gladiators were infamous. They remained outcasts of society and were regarded no differently than criminals or members of other shameful professions (cf. Tacitus,Annals, I.76, commenting on Drusus, who took pleasure in the shedding of blood “however vile”). And yet, as Tertullian exclaims, “Next taunts or mutual abuse without any warrant of hate, and applause, unsupported by affection….The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace” (De Spectaculus, XXII).

(http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/gladiators/gladiators.html)

Gladiators, in spite of the inevitably gruesome end to their careers, and although they didn’t quite enjoy the status of rock stars of their times, (they were, after all, mostly slaves, prisoners ,or criminals of war), did get to wear a fair share of bling : the pugnum, iaculum, verutum, and the occasional  martiobarbulli, shields and weapons and death accoutrement that weighed upwards of 20 kilograms.

And gladiators had the satisfaction of knowing they were at least honorable tributes to the Gods.

And they were given one last big meal before stumbling out into the scorching sun, the tumult of cheering crowds and the jaws, say, of a lion.

All putting the glad in gladiator.

I suppose.

Nîmes has touched you this year if you  heard of something called “The Hunger Games” — if you read the novel depicting a grim post-apocalyptic future where youths are forced to hunt down and kill one another for a leering public, or if you were one of the hundreds of thousands worldwide who spent over $214 million during the opening week to see the film. Chances are, you couldn’t escape Nîmes’ mortifying reach.

Here’s where Nîmes and its magnificent arena stand as a cautionary tale.  The amphitheater reminds of how a great world power, (here I’m talking about Rome’s), while spiraling into the heights of artistic and cultural and scientific splendor reaches a pitch where its desires-run-amok plummet into desires-run-aground.

But you were among the select few on the planet who’s never heard of “The Hunger Games”? You were ice fishing in Reykyavik, maybe? Or herding yaks in Bajanchongor? Maybe you were hunkering in a troglodyte abbey up on a mountaintop? Or you were into Downton Abbey?

Still, you were touched by Nîmes.

Right now, as a matter of fact, wherever you are reading this post, chances are you’re touched by Nimes.

At least your legs are.

And your seat.

Denim: de Nîmes. Literally:  from Nîmes.  The name is a shortened version of serge de Nîmes, “serge” being a kind of heavy cotton twill that came from Nîmes.

De Nîmes.

And “jeans”? From the French name for the Italian city Genoa, where the first “deNîmes” were manufactured for sailors.

And since we’re on the topic, Levi Strauss?

He was actually Löb Strauß, but changed to Levi when he, a German Jew, emigrated from Bavaria through New York City’s Ellis Island, then continued to San Francisco during the Gold Rush of the late 1800’s.  It was there where Strauß partnered with a Latvian, Jacob Davis, to manufacture what both men hoped would be the sturdiest work pants ever.

How to make them rip-resistant? Plug in copper rivets at all the strategic points of stress, of course. Because unlike today, starched ripless denims, not saggy shredded ones, were the whole point.

Denims.  From Nîmes. From Italy.  From Bavaria.  From Latvia.  From San Fransisco.

Now you know how Nîmes touched you figuratively.

And, um,  figuratively.

A toreador from Nîmes who apparently — and mortifyingly — missed the denim trend

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Intensifigation

What defines brilliance?

What is the relationship between creativity and insanity?

How do you judge what is inspired and what is insipid?

What breeds eccentricity: extraordinary gifts, or the drive to be extraordinary?

What breeds the extraordinary: excellence, extremes, excess or some combination of the three?

Or something else altogether?

Is there really such a thing as an inborn artistic temperament, and how does one temper it?

Do you necessarily want to?

What makes the difference between a bright mind and one that ignites randomly, setting the soul on fire?

Whose self-painted eyes are these?

Why did he sell only one painting in his lifetime?

Why did his neighbors call him the “fou roux”, (the crazy redhead), demanding he be institutionalized?

Why did he cut off part (or some say all) of this ear?

Why did he admit himself for a full year to an asylum?

How could he paint, in that one year, 150 canvases?

And why did only seven of any of his canvases draw any public attention whatsoever during his lifetime?

Why, just a few months after that calming and productive institutionalization, and just as some of his work was noticed by critics for the first time, why then did he kill himself?

Why, a century later, are seven of his paintings among those that have drawn the highest dollar in history at auction? ($147 mill, $107 mill, $80 mill. . .)

Why are all those above-mentioned works among those he painted during that year in asylum, the last year of his life?

And why has this man — and why have his eyes —- followed me for the last five days? Stared me down for the last 35 years?

**

Five miles over the Alpilles from Maussane lies St. Rémy, a bubbling Provençal hub with its weekly market, grayed lavender and periwinkle blue shutters, squares shaded by speckled plane trees, and our favorite barber who for 42 years has cut men’s hair and shaved their beards in the same small shop off the plaza where (the same barbered) men used to play péntaque every day after lunch.

St. Rémy is a plateful of all you can hope for in deliciousness and a paletteful of all a painter could want in vividness. Yet acres and acres of soft slopes colored in peace and quiet.

That thick quiet suffused with a special light and the sun-warmed earth are what drew the crazy redhead to retreat here to a cloister called St. Paul-le-Mausole just outside St. Rémy’s center.

The cloister, dating from the early Christian period, is part of a small compound bearing the name of the nearby Roman mausoleum. The mausoleum – an imposing tower and arch — are the first structures discovered from the adjacent Roman community called Glanum, completely uncovered a generation after the painter lived a few hundred meters from it.

But the painter rarely if ever walked outside of the walls of the cloister. He wouldn’t have seen the tower.  In fact, his letters suggest he kept not just within the walls of the cloister, but mostly within the walls of his two rooms.

There, he seemed to find plenty to stimulate his acute eye and unquiet mind.

Asylum of St. Rémy

He wrote about what he saw through the small barred windows:

“A view of the garden of the asylum where I am, on the right a gray terrace, a section [of] the house, some rosebushes that have lost their flowers; on the left, the earth of the garden – red ochre – earth burnt by the sun, covered in fallen pine twigs. This edge of the garden is planted with large pines with red ochre trunks and branches, with green foliage saddened by a mixture of black. These tall trees stand out against an evening sky streaked with violet against a yellow background. High up, the yellow turns to pink, turns to green. A wall – red ocher again – blocks the view, and there’s nothing above it but a violet and yellow ochre hill. Now, the first tree is an enormous trunk, but struck by lightning and sawn off. A side branch, thrusts up very high, however, and falls down again in an avalanche of dark green twigs. This dark giant – like a proud man brought low – contrasts, when seen as the character of a living being, with the pale smile of the last rose on the bush, which is fading in front of him. Under the trees, empty stone benches, dark box. The sky is reflected yellow in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun – the last glimmer – exalts the dark ocher to orange – small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks.”

I’ll bet you’ve seen these paintings. Maybe you even remember, as I do, the first time you saw any of them.  Maybe the moment knocked you flat. It did me.

**

I’d just become a teenager and was in Europe for the first time, and found myself standing in a famous museum creaking along the wooden floors until I paused — froze — in the middle of a room entirely full of his works.  Irises.  Sunflowers. Cypresses.  Wheat fields.  A glimmering, disco-ball starry night.

In that hour I felt what you felt, too, probably: I and I alone had discovered electricity.

Not the Ben Franklin current. And nothing as banal as a pronged plug at the end of a twisted plastic chord.

What I’d found was more like what would have happened had I stuck my tongue right into the socket of the center of the universe.  Scorched through.  Whizz-zammed.  Lifted off my toes by thunder.

I crept closer to the canvas — as close as I could get without getting slapped by a guard — to see if the brushstrokes still smelled of oil. Weren’t they painted just an hour ago?  And then I looked both ways, thinking maybe if I staged the right distraction or turned at the perfect angle, I could lick the canvas.  Honest.  Weren’t chunks of color that fresh and moist made to be tasted?

Today, they are in every dentist’s office, those pictures.  And you can pick them up in every Three-For- $4.99 student print shop.  (You’ll find them right between the posters of greased surfers and kittens hanging on a clothes line by their paws.)

As soon as Randall and I, students at the time, had saved $20, we bought a “Starry Night.”

We framed it ourselves with a plate of discount glass and cheap little clippy thingies.  And it followed us in that simple frame from house to house for years.  When we eventually visited Amsterdam, we’d graduated from grad school and to a big, canvas reprint of those succulent almond blossoms.

We had it framed professionally this time (hand painted wood and all), and it’s followed us ever since.  Both works were painted in that intense last year at St. Rémy.

Much like they’ve become clichés those two pieces, so have the painter’s life and even his name. I heard, for example, an automobile manufacturer tried to market a family car using his name: Van Go.  The campaign didn’t make it out of the starting gates due to legal snags.

We can all thank our lucky starry nights.

And now here I was again, strolling the modest garden that once grew the irises he captured with his brush.

Walking by the old stone wall with his cypresses,

standing beside his bleached blue door,

circling the inner courtyard where he’d walked in an infinite loop for hours on end,

hearing his own description of what his peculiar and fiery eye saw. What my thick lenses hardly notice:

“You’ll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called ‘seeing red’.”

To a friend, he wrote of his

“. . .Moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.”

To his sister he wrote:

“I should like to paint portraits which appear after a century to people living then as apparitions. By which I mean that I do not endeavor to achieve this through photographic resemblance, but my means of our impassioned emotions — that is to say using our knowledge and our modern taste for color as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character.”

“Intensification of character.”

Van Gogh himself. As well as being a genius with his tormented, mercurial moods, furious and radiant manic episodes, passions at once so violent and so virtuous, he feared he was the devil and his brother thought he was a saint.  His vigor was physical, intellectual and spiritual, making for such a tempestuous existence, he seemed fated from early on to self-extinguish — destitute, alone, a pauper — as he in fact did at an early age.

And so I wonder.  I ask again all those questions at the top of this post.  Is “intensification of character” and all its distantly-related cousins — passion, zeal, pushing and obliterating boundaries, creativity, perfection, sensation-seeking — are they really, in the tragic end, all they’re cracked up to be? Isn’t surviving — reliable steadiness, normal plodding through, being there for others — a pretty intense quest? All by itself?

What price art?

I have no answer. Except perhaps to the first question:

What defines brilliance?

Well, that’s an easy one:

Which begs the obvious: What price no art? 

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.