Warsaw, Poland: City of Uprisings

The following week of daily posts will be devoted to Global Mom’s recent trip to Poland. The text is minimalist, the images large format. I hope you enjoy the journey and share this collection with your family and friends.

Easter, for many the world over, summons images of death and rebirth. Warsaw does something similar in me. The Polish capital has been destroyed many times, only to rise up again, and again and again.

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© 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.

Old Town Square, Warsaw, is  UNESCO Heritage site, showcasing architecture dating to the 13th century, reconstructed after the Nazi's targeted terror bombings of WWII

Old Town Square, Warsaw, a UNESCO Heritage site, showcasing architecture dating to the 13th century, reconstructed after the Nazi’s targeted terror bombings of WWII

A cast iron model of Old Warsaw in the foreground, with the reconstructed royal castle in the background

A cast iron model of Old Warsaw in the foreground, with the reconstructed royal castle in the background

Warsaw has witnessed many uprisings: The Warsaw Uprising of 1794. . .

Warsaw has witnessed several uprisings: The Warsaw Uprising of 1794. . .

The November Uprising. . .

The November Uprising. . .

The January Uprising. . .

The January Uprising. . .

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising of April 1943

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. This is a marker embedded in the sidewalk, showing the precise location of the ghetto wall

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The monument to the Jewish Ghetto Uprising

The monument to the Jewish Ghetto Uprising

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising was led by Mordecai Anielewicz, who, with fellow insurgents, took his own life when the Germans quashed their grass roots rebellion

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising was led by Mordecai Anielewicz, who, with fellow insurgents, took his own life when the Germans finally quashed their grass roots rebellion.

The Warsaw Uprising led by the Home Army, late summer, 1943

The Warsaw Uprising led by the Home Army, late summer, 1943

Civilians and soldiers, fighting side-by-side against the Red Army under direction of the Polish government in exile in London

Civilians and soldiers fought side-by-side against the Red Army under direction of the Polish government in exile in London.  They were forced to capitulate, and any surviving Poles were sent to POW or extermination camps, and to Siberia

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Warsaw, following the Nazi's "Burn and Destroy" campaign

Warsaw, following the Nazi’s “Burn and Destroy” campaign. Between 170,000 and 200,000 civilians were killed, and remaining others were sent to “transit camps”.  Over 1,100,000 Jews had already been sent to nearby concentration/extermination camps. . .

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The Russian forces overtook when Germany retreated at the end of the war, and  began a massive reconstruction campaign amid the ruins. This consisted primarily of "modernizing" the razed city, and erecting Stalinesque buildings like this, the enormous Culture and Science Museum

The Russian forces overtook when Germany retreated at the end of the war, and began a massive reconstruction campaign amid the ruins. This consisted primarily of “modernizing” the razed city, and erecting Stalinesque buildings like this, the enormous Culture and Science Museum

The old city square and royal road was spared, and rebuilt on the mounds of the ghetto rubble.  In some places, as in the foundation of this building, one can see how old buildings were rebuilt on piles of debris

The old city square and royal road were spared, and rebuilt on the mounds of the ghetto rubble. In some places, as in the foundation of this building, one can see how old buildings were rebuilt right on top of piles of debris

Based on the canvases of Italian painter Benardo Bellotto, the old square was meticulously rebuilt.

Based on the 18th century canvases of Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto, the old square was meticulously rebuilt, using as many pieces of scrap, paint chips and ornamentation as could be retrieved from the ruins

It was completed to perfection in 1953

It was completed to perfection in 1953

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Right on the old square, the home of Marie Salomea Sklodowska Curie, 1911 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her theory of radioactivity

Right on the old square, the home of Marie Salomea Sklodowska Curie, 1911 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her theory of radioactivity

More tomorrow on the beautiful architecture, Easter rituals and people of Warsaw. . .

More tomorrow on the beautiful architecture, Easter rituals and people of Warsaw. . .

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Blogueuse Relooking

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Which means, roughly, that I’m a female blogger (French: blogueuse), and I’m going to spruce things up (French: re-looking).

I thought it only fair to warn you.  Don’t freak out.  You’ll still recognize me.

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Next time you visit here, you won’t find the lugubrious blue-gray background, the flashy hot yellow-to-vermillion-to-hot yellow strip along the top, the calendar and Goodreads list and other cluttery widgets. Maybe you won’t even find my come-hither grin on the left hand side of the screen, I’m still deliberating.  (Although please, I do sincerely want you to come hither. Or, uh, come here.)

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What I hope you’ll find is a brighter, fresher page – so subtly tucked, so gently stretched, with a lift and a plump and still all the warmth and candor and depth and spirit I hope you have come to expect when you click for a visit.

Why all of a sudden this relooking? Age, quite frankly.  This blog is coming up on One Year Old.  In blog years, I think that’s over the hill.

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But more salient than the age thing, I’m making a shift.  We have spent two solid months of posting exclusively on my book entitled Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward.  As you know, but as I should probably explain to newcomers, that volume is a manuscript born out of our family’s ongoing experience with catastrophic loss. I’ve written at length here at the blog and elsewhere about the realities of traumatic loss, acute grief and the droning underscore of absence that have been our family’s journey since July 2007.  That was when our eldest, Parker, then 18 years and 5 months old, lost his life while attempting at saving another’s.

While I think a lot and deeply about the experience of loss, (my own and others), and while I’ve researched and written extensively about what major and permanent loss means in our lives, (both intimate and communal), it was the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school that flipped a major switch in me.  I simply had to post on only this topic for a while. I’m certainly not done with it – neither with my own grief and burden of absence, nor with writing about it – but I find it necessary to shift this blog’s focus to other topics for a season.

But first, here is where I want to thank you, my readers.  Some of you have come here loyally without posting comments publicly. Instead, you have written to my private email address.  I need you to know that you have taught me life-altering things in your tender and stark messages.  You’ve confided sacred things in me.  You’ve sent, a few of you, pages of  straight-from-the-gut writing, and I have read them with respect. It is hard to know how to thank you enough.

Others of you have posted comments for all of us, mostly strangers to one another, to sift through. Not easy, especially when the topic singes nerve-endings and cuts right down to the marrow.  I honor your experiences and appreciate your trust in sharing such personal treasure in a public forum.

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As I re-look the blog to something slightly cheerier and hopefully easier on your eyes, I hope the content will follow suit. You know already that my book, Global Mom:A Memoir goes to press. . .GOES TO PRESS?. . .(goes to, gulp, press). . .tomorrow. . .and will be in your neighborhood bookstore (and on Amazon) as of June 1.  Between now and then, I want to return to posting from that manuscript. I will be picking up from where we left off ages ago (does it feel like ages ago to you, too?), in Versailles on our way to Croissy-sur-Seine, a village outside of Paris, where we lived for a while.

Then on to five other addresses/languages/cultures/homes.

Here’s what you can anticipate over the next few months:

-More frequent but shorter posts, mostly excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir. (I’ll try to post 3x a week)

-Lots of photos from my archives (which, of course, will not be included in the printed book. So you get the exclusive illustrated version!)

-Behind the scene peeks into the process of writing and editing this book; what it’s been like working with an exceptional publishing/design/editing team in a cutting-edge boutique publishing house; you’ll meet some of my online writing/cheerleader friends (so you might meet yourself); and you’ll get an inkling of how my family has been (stupendous!) through this all.

-Glimpses into what’s happening now in the real Global Mom’s world, namely: what does spring in Switzerland really look, smell, sound and taste like?

-And with all that, some extra fun travel in and around central Europe.  I envision a little Poland rather soon, some more Italy, probably some Austria, undoubtedly a whole lot of France. I’ll take plenty of pictures and even video footage.

-Speaking of video footage, I’ll be adding much more of it, and will link to You Tube.  I want you and others that you tell about this blog and the book, to get to know Global Mom on the road.

-And then, of course, anything else that happens to pop up on the journey.

This should be so much of fun! Thanks to each of you for being here and for making my world an abundant place worth living in.  With you, I want to dig into it with both hands,  my head on straight, and my heart wide open.

052

Besieging God

© 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.

© 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.

In the scripture story I read aloud to my nine-year-olds in Sunday school class two weeks ago, a man had prayed all through the day and into the night, and into the next day. “Look right here,” I pointed to the page for the kids, “he even says he ‘wrestled’ in prayer. Sounds like it must have been pretty urgent, don’t you think? Sounds as if he really beseeched God.”

Beseeched?” Camille asked, wriggling between Annie and Claire. Nothing gets past these kids, even if sometimes their feet can’t reach the floor when they’re in the grownup chairs. Claire’s eyebrows sloped and pinched together; “What’s beseeched?” “Yeah, what’s that?” Annie asked, curling her lip.

I rattled off a few synonyms: supplicated, pled, importuned.

(More wriggling, sloped brows, curling lips.)

William, wise beyond his nine years, patted his hand on the table, calling everyone to order.

“Besieged,” William said. “What she said was he besieged God.”

That was last Sunday, and this Saturday morning I was still replaying that moment – that word – in my head. Besiege. William had hit on a brilliant thing. In fact, John Donne and Tertullian would have agreed:

Earnest prayer has the nature of importunity. . .We press, we importune God. . .Prayer has the nature of impudence and more. Prayer has the nature of violence; in the public prayers of the congregation, we besiege God, says Tertullian, and we take God prisoner, and bring God to our conditions, and God is glad to be straitened by us in that siege.

-John Donne, in The Complete English Poems of George Herbert, ed. J. Tobin. 347

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With that excerpt scrolling through my thoughts, I moved in and around the clusters of visitors in the Cologne cathedral – Cologne, which in World War II had been a Militärbereichshauptkommandoquartier, one of those confounding German compound words which means a central command station for military purposes.

Prayer as besieging. Cologne as a siege center. The Cologne cathedral as a symbol for besieging prayer.

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When I was a child like Annie, Camille, Claire and William, life was fresh and uncomplicated, my heart was unscathed, my mind all chirpy canary yellow with splashes of robin’s egg blue and the floating fluff of clouds. I realize now I was lucky, as are these four. At nine, I knew nothing of what far too many nine-year-olds in this world do; that life can be harsh, even hostile, often brutal. And in that innocent world it was sufficient to “say my prayers.”

I was taught to say my prayers as soon as I was taught to recite the alphabet. These weren’t rote prayers, but were the simple expressions of a little girl: “Hemly Fader, we sank dee fow dis day. . .”

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I was taught that prayers were heard, and that they were answered. I could trust that God was a loving Father, who would respond with blessings, even if sometimes those blessings might not necessarily come, as I began to learn in my teens, when, how, or in the form I might expect them. But He would hear. And He would respond. This is what God was there for. To keep things under control by answering my prayers.

I was taught to pray both in English and in German, since my parents, who weren’t German but loved things German, wanted us to speak that language. With my head bowed and arms folded reverently across my chest, I would say, “Lieber Vater im Himmel. . .”And our family, at the dinner table after the amen of the prayer over the food, would all hold hands and sort of tug up and down on each other’s hands, chanting, “Guten Appetit-teet-teet, let’s eat!”

God, went my logic, provided for our material needs, including every meal. And He was German.

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At the start of the day with my family next to our dining room table, we often knelt. And I knelt alone, mostly at my bedside at night. When there was an exceptional or acute concern – someone was in trouble, there was a war in a foreign country, a president was being impeached, a church leader was sick, the boy down the street was hit by a train in the night, or Mom was having life-threatening surgery – we circled, knelt, and prayed.

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It’s no exaggeration that I can’t imagine my life up until five and a half years ago void of prayer, which had always been a vital enough element of my intimate connection with my Father in Heaven. Prayer, I experienced as I matured, had consistently opened up channels of strength and understanding that were beyond my natural capacities. Prayer had guided me, had guided things to me, had helped me even have specific things: my husband, for instance, our four incredible children, employment, a place to live every time we moved, health, sanity, answers, wisdom,forgiveness, words for writing, lost keys, lost cameras, lost credit cards and even my lost youngest who’d toddled away in a public park in a seedy part of Paris.

You might call that personal revelation. I do, too.

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Prayer also softened things. The bite of stinging betrayal, self-doubt, loneliness, homesickness, disappointment, anger, rage, indignance.

And it sharpened things. It alerted me to physical and spiritual danger, made me a lot smarter than I actually am in those many moments of dire brain need, and helped me on many occasions discern truth from fraud.

Prayer recharged me. It generated some remarkable healings in other’s lives as well as in my own. My life was literally saved at 14, as a matter of fact, and while doctors and medication and treatment and family support were absolutely central, I believe prayer (and God) facilitated them being so.

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Prayer broke me down. It opened me up for inspection, corrected me, blowtorched some real crusty grime and grit from my moldings, blew the wool clean off of my own sight of myself.

And then prayer hid me. In prayer, I found I was understood, and experienced that I was already known to a caring God, who is (this should be no surprise given that he’s God) always an eternal step ahead of me. He knew my needs long before they even became my needs.

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Many years ago, lying flat on my stomach, face smushed to one side, I’d explained my feelings about prayer to a massage therapist, Vickie. She pummeled me regularly over my childbearing and child-on-the-hip-carrying years, trying to treat the debilitating lower back spasms that used to hit without warning and landed me many times on a stretcher, in a hospital, and always in bed and on mega muscle relaxants for a couple of weeks each time.

“Vickie, it’s like this,” I said. “I petition the Lord, and the response is immediate, almost, as if he’d been anticipating my question. The answers and blessings come so freely. All these wonderful, undeserved blessings. They’ve really built my faith.”

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Vickie, who could not have known that in a few weeks from that hour she was going to be diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer, kept kneading my muscles. She sighed at my comment. Lately, she’d been feeling much more tired than usual.

“Yeah,” she said, planting her palms on either side of my lumbar vertebrae, sending heat. “I guess so, Melissa. But that’s not where it ends. I think it’s when you don’t get the FedEx online-shopping-cart answer to your prayers when you really find out what you know.” She lifted her hands to sweep her hair from her face. “It’s when you don’t get your wish list that you see God really, really clearly.”

Massage therapists. They’ve got some special thing.

Vickie’s words came back to me in full timbre when I heard of her diagnosis.

Was prayer going to whonk this one for Vickie, steamroll it? I prayed for major whonking. I trusted in prayer-as-steamroller. Last I heard, Vickie’s still in remission.

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Then Vickie’s words came back again in July of 2007. The summer of implosion. It was through implosion that I relearned prayer, much like I relearned breathing. In fact, prayer became my essential breath. It was also then I started seeing things, including God, much more clearly.

Saying my prayers wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Neither was mere beseeching.

This was the besieging season.

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“Kids,” I said last Sunday in our little church class, “I know what it’s like to be this man in the scriptures.” I reported this with studied dispassion, like a journalist. No need to frighten the kids. No need to share sacred emotion. “I know what it’s like to go somewhere and stay there praying all day, all night, all day again. Did you know, friends, you can pray without words? Mm-hum. You can even fall on your face and cry and, ta-da!, it’s a prayer! Or you can groan, pound your fists, and maybe even yell up into the sky. All prayer.”

Annie’s large blue eyes grew larger, bluer.

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“So. . . what was it?” Claire asked, “What made you pray like that?” She looked like someone from the New York Times perched in the front row of the press corps.

Camille popped up on her knees on her chair and shook her light brown hair around her shoulders, singing, “Didn’t you have a son who died?”

I looked at William, inches to my left, his soft smile unchanged. Exquisite. When I dream of Parker, strangely enough, I so often dream of him at age nine.

“I still have a son,” I corrected her, smiling, “And yes, he died.”

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Those words felt unnatural – spiky and metallic – in my mouth. I could still tongue and taste them nearly a week later while meandering through Cologne’s cathedral.

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Besieging God with prayer. I know the taste of that, too. Broken capillaries in my eyes. Bruises on my palms from pounding on the tiled kitchen floor at 3:00 a.m. Scuffling through Munich’s English Garden in a downpour, talking to the wretched leafless branches. Behind the steering wheel for hours and hours in a loop on the Autobahn. Head tucked into my sternum to avoid banal contact with the public, draining tears and whispers into my lap in the back pew at church.

And head thrown back, staring at the highest point I can focus on, way above the mountains, out there where hope lies. . .

. . .Trying to sing a hymn to myself, but finding sound log-jammed below my heart.

All through the night. The day, The night again. And weeks, months. These years.

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Besieging prayer isn’t about external drama. God can see through hypocritical audience-targeted theatrics. Let’s face it: those prayers have their mortal hearers. The prayer I’m talking about can happen entirely within the ribcage, even while sitting in a public space like, say, a cathedral.

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In that case, it might not bear a single toolmark of outward pathos. But the inward soundtrack could shatter glass.

This prayer wants to pierce and penetrate what might sometimes feel like an opaque canopy stretched over our earth and our minds, keeping us from the big – biggest – picture. That kind of prayer isn’t tidy and toothless, in fact it hardly has anything to do with “saying one’s prayers”, but is jagged-edged in its raw and dynamic vertical groping and yes, it’s not a one-off stab at “the prayer thing.”

If rendered in stone, that prayer would probably look something like the Cologne cathedral, and might take a long time to reach its point.

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This cathedral? A mere 600 years.

All those spires. Aspiring. Besieging for inspiration.

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From pastor and author Dennis Lennon, who describes in Turning The Diamond George Herbert’s sonnet, “Prayer”:

We pray because prayer works, and because it changes things. It changes the world and it is able to penetrate the hearts of men to change their ways. . .[It] even ‘changes’ God, in the sense that a captor ‘changes’ his prisoner. This hair-raising, staggeringly risky picture takes up the idea of the old military engineer’s construction for siege and assault, his ‘engine’ to batter the enemy’s defenses, tunnel under his trenches and blow open the gates of this fortress.

–Lennon, 44-45

You find intimations of this from John Donne, both soldier and poet:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

– Divine Meditations, 14

In a verse like that from Donne, as Lennon writes, there’s no trace of “over-familiarity with the Lord” (like the guy who chuckles, saying, “Hey, when I get to those pearly gates, boy I’ll tell you am I ever going to give the Boss a piece of my mind!”) Instead, there’s a “healthy and realistic awareness of [our] frailty, of life hanging by a thread. . .It suggests a mountaineer pressed up against a rock-face, holding on, just, by the tips of his fingers.”

Or the tips of her fingers.

The man from the scripture story and my Sunday school class experience was not Jacob of the Old Testament. But he resembled him. Jacob, as you probably know, “wrestled” with an angel. His is the story I’ll end with here, because it resonates – it booms – throughout the whole cathedral of my soul.

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Jacob was in a desperate life-or-death situation, in “great fear and distress”, but was hanging on to a promise God had given him long ago, and was ready – in the middle of the night, all alone, with death breathing down his neck– to “wrestle” for that blessing. “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” (Genesis 32:24)

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Lennon describes this:

We know ‘the man’ was a theophany, God incognito, for next day Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I saw God face to face’ and lived to tell his story. . .What passed through Jacob’s mind as he grappled with his opponent, crashing around on the bank of the river? At some point the realization dawned (or was it a lightning flash of revelation?) that he was fighting with a God-man, a man representing God: God-as-man. . . .At some point Jacob said to himself, “O my God! It’s God!! I don’t know what’s going on here but now that I have him I’ll show him, how desperately I need him for myself, my family, and my future people. If this is God, I’ll prove to him that I believe him with every scrap of energy within me. Everything I have known about God – those amazing stories, the traditions, the prayers, the history (all words, words, words) are now in my embrace and I will not let go until I have the blessing’–something along those lines? – 49,50

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Jacob, in the throes of besieging prayer, had a life-changing experience. How life-changing, you ask? Well, God changed his name to Israel, which means “he is ruled.”

From that point on and forever more, the man ruled by God walked with a limp.

Could God have chosen a more unambiguous way to indicate his pleasure at Jacob’s tenacious, tough-minded, audacious faith? The new name tells the world this man wrestled with God and over-came. The limps tells the world – look at the weakness of this man’s strength. – 51

When I finished taking all these photographs, I slung my bulky camera bag on one shoulder and made my way up the nave toward the massive cathedral doors. Before pushing out into the glittering drizzle, I hoisted the weight one last time, thrusting a hip out to one side for balance, which made me list. Or even limp.

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Not Your Father’s Cologne

Image: wikicommons

Image: wikicommons

Like blades puncturing a gray tarp, the spires of the Cologne (Köln) cathedral (Dom) shoot with sanguine self-assertion into an upperworld, an otherworld. Audacious, virile, epic – the Kölner Dom’s pitch is stratospheric, almost enough to make you veer off the road as you swing into town at night, as we did last Friday.

“Whoah. Can you see that?” Twelve-year-old Luc, reading in the back seat, dropped his book and pressed his face against the window. “Whoah. Whoah-ho. Okay, that’s cool.”

The medieval architects of Europe sought to create an on-your-tippy-toes, to-the-very-finger-tips skyscraping of celestial proportions. Their aim? To scratch heaven’s underbelly with stone. Or better, to replicate heaven with it.

Today, this church is a spiny anomaly in a landscape of squatty or swirly modernity. But centuries ago when it was built, the Dom was seen as a meeting place of spheres. God descending to men. Men ascending to God. Heaven as down-to-earth and earth as up-to-heaven. People all over the then-known world made their pilgrimages just to arrive at its doors, touch its walls, fall on their knees, and crawl up to its altar.

And now we were cruising through Friday night rush hour traffic to get our peek.

“So, imagine this one, guys: in World War II, this whole town was completely flattened. Two-hundred-something air raids. About 1,500 tons of explosives, of which 1,000 of those were incendiary. Remember Dresden?”

“Of course. Yeah, we remember Dresden,” Dalton said quietly.

Image: wodumedia

Image: wodumedia

“By the end of the war. . .let’s see.. .yes, by the end of the war less than 5% of the inhabitants were still here. Many had been killed; most had been evacuated from the ruins. I also read that virtually all of Köln’s 11,000 Jews had been deported to concentration camps or murdered on the spot. All six synagogues had been destroyed. Only one has since been rebuilt.”

Silence.

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We were within a few streets from the cathedral. We had to hang our heads out our windows to try to see the whole structure, it was that tall. Built over the span of six-hundred years by the hands of mostly nameless artisans, and without as much as a forklift or a power saw, the cathedral dominated the whole night sky.

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“What else, Mel?” Randall was navigating the inner city’s labyrinth of one-ways. Our GPS spoke to us in German, like a Lufthansa flight attendant murmuring politely from our glove box.

“Well, the urban planner responsible for rebuilding the city after 1945 called Köln ‘the world’s greatest heap of rubble.’ Except –” I opened my window to try to get a photo as we came around a corner, “except this cathedral.”

We parked, bumper to curbside, in front of a blackened Emerald City.

“Seriously?” Dalton asked, stepping out of the back and into light rain. We walked right to the front doors, my camera at the ready.

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door handles, main entrance

door handles, main entrance

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“Yeah, I’d say seriously. She was hit I don’t know how many times by allied bombs – seventy-something, I think – and she never collapsed, if you can believe it.”

I shielded my lens from the rain.

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“And that’s gotta be thanks to her flying buttresses, right?” Luc cracked a smile and lifted his brows to Dalton.

(I’ve decided twelve-year-old boys, like some twenty-year-old boys I taught in college, just can’t get enough of flying buttresses.)

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“Dude, check out the flying buttresses,” Luc elbowed his brother, snorting and giggling, pointing to the cathedral’s exterior stone arches that support the weight of so much wall with windows.

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Lovely sons, these, who can correctly identify parts of a building’s anatomy.

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The following morning, knowing I had only a few hours before we would leave town, I made my way back through her doors. By my third hour there, hundreds of other visitors had joined me.

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In the next two posts, I’d first like to share with you what I saw and thought as I looked not only at this magnificent tribute to faith, but also at all the people there with me, looking, too. The post is called, “Beseiging God.”

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Then, I’ll explain the reason for our family’s trip to Germany in a post entitled, “Praying Like a Good Sport.”

Hope you’ll be there.

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This work is licensed under aCreative 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.

Firebombed Beauty

Images and text © 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.

Images and text © 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.

“The dead open the eyes of the blind.”

It is said that the ancient Romans used to recite these words at burials. I have recited these words to myself over five and a half years, and find they are true for me in multiple ways.

Fresh from the out-of-the-blue ruin of losing my son, I saw reality with newly-opened eyes. I can say without any trace of pride – more with wonder, really – that I discerned things in new ways. Part of what I saw anew was that death was everywhere. The withering vine, the rotting tree, the parched reservoir – I now saw them all with painful clarity: they were evidences to me that death and decay were omnipresent, the rule (not the exception) of this mortal existence.

With eyes opened  to the omnipresence of death, and knowing I would never again have the luxury of my former blindness, I longed to be close to others who had similar eyesight. I deliberately sought out those who knew significant loss. With them, I felt kinship and consolation.

Beyond seeking out people in pain, I also sought out places of pain.

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Dresden, Germany lay five hours northward from Munich. “Dresden”, if the name doesn’t send an immediate shockwave through you, deserves a paragraph or two of solemn attention. What I’m going to write here will help explain why several times, drawn to places of pain, I bee-lined it with my family to Dresden.

“Listening? You all listening back there?” I was now sitting shotgun, Randall was driving up the wintery autobahn, and I had my notes open on my lap.

“Yeah. Go ahead, Mom. Listening,” came Claire’s voice from the back seat.

I read:

Dresden is a living landmark to massive devastation and painstaking reconstruction. A century ago, this city then known as Germany’s Jewel Box or Florence on the Elbe [River] boasted, among other important edifices, the eminent Zwinger museum, Semper opera house, and its gently towering Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady.

This is where I stopped reading and explained why, besides visiting our church’s temple (a structure sacred to us, built in the eastern city of Freiberg in the years when Germany was still divided into East and West), I was intent on getting us to Dresden.

I continued to read aloud to my family from the material I‘d sifted through over weeks. I’d had to sift because what happened in Dresden in the last months of World War II is unquestionably one of the most contested military maneuvers of modern history. It has aroused widespread and unresolved controversy, outside campaigning, and heated public debate. Accusations, justifications, wild speculations, exaggerated or minimized claims of the death toll, subsequent novels and movies based on the horror – all have blurred the contours of whatever we might pin down today as the truth regarding Dresden.

What I wanted my children to know were the cold facts upon which the most respected historians agree: that between Febraury 13 and 15 of 1945, in the ultimate winding down scenes of the global conflict, 722 heavy bombers of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and 527 of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) dropped several thousand tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden.

“And now we’re driving our family car right into the heart of all this history,” I said.

The firebombing resulted in a colossal firestorm, which phenomenon destroyed fifteen square miles of the city center and killed somewhere close to 25,000 people. Some estimates, which take into consideration the thousands of refugees who’d fled to Dresden ahead of the approaching Russian forces, go as high as 300,000 fatalities. Such claims, however, are generally discounted as overblown.

What is not discounted but what I did not add because it was too much to try to articulate, was that these civilians – men, women and many children – died either by suffocation in air raid shelters where they were crammed and oxygen was sucked into the above ground firestorm, or they were crushed by falling debris and collapsing buildings as they ran through the streets. Most were incinerated alive.

For various voices documenting the attack on Dresden, you might consider going here, here, here or here. I have to warn, however, that the eyewitness accounts offered from survivors read like pure apocalypse.

Post-post-apocalyptic Dresden; that was what I wanted my family to see as we approached the Elbe River. I’d last seen Dresden in its general state of ruin when I was a teenager in the late ’70’s.

Image: Bundesarchiv

Image: Bundesarchiv

I held my breath a bit now to see this city decades later, transformed, as I’d read it had been. I wanted for myself and for my family to see the city’s emblem, Dresden’s creamy soft-domed cathedral standing whole and wise on the skyline.

“The Frauenkirche,” I half-turned so the three in the backseat could hear every word, “is the main reason for our visit. Whoever sees her dome first. . . well, you’ll know it.”

And there she stood.

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“The last time I saw her,” I told my family as we walked across cobblestones up to the cathedral, “she was a sprawled heap of rubble, no more than a sandstone quarry.”

There, on a plaque, we read that the citizens of Dresden had left her as she’d fallen: splayed and scorched, a mountain of scarred stones. For over forty years, in fact, (that Biblical number of exile), they’d left her crumbled remains just as they’d fallen, a haunting anti-war memorial.

During the firebombing, her famous 100-meter-high dome weighing 12 tons and supported by eight elegant pillars – an architectural marvel like St. Paul’s in London and St. Peter’s in Rome – had held up just long enough so that 300 people who’d run into the crypt for refuge could be evacuated. Why would they run from cover into the streets, which were filled with flying ash and burning whips of flame? Because the 650,000 incendiary bombs generated heat that exceeded 1,000 Celsius, and that roaring furnace made the cathedral pillars themselves into incandescent shafts of dynamite. The Lady herself was like a scaffolding of ammunition, and began rumbling and shaking like an engine ready to explode.

The dome fell late on the night of February 15th, the eight pillars glowed red and erupted like cannons, and the cathedral walls shattered as if detonated, sending 6,000 tons of stone downward. In one echoing blow, the floor (and the crypt below) were decimated.

Standing on the public square that fans out from the church, our family  eavesdropped on a tour group:

Over the ensuing years while Dresden was under East Germany’s Communist rule, citizens quietly collected and catalogued the charred pieces of rubble, peacefully planning for a day when their cathedral would be reconstructed. By the mid-1980’s, the East German civil rights and peace movement that resisted the Communist regime had gained traction, and the ruins of Dresden’s Frauenkirche served as a symbol around which protestors rallied. This helped propel the events that led to the demolition of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany.

In 1994, a man named Günter Blobel, a naturalized American citizen who had known firsthand as a child refugee the devastation of the Dresden bombings, established the “Friends of Dresden.” This nonprofit organization set out to preserve and, if possible, reconstruct the city’s cultural and artistic heart. Then when Blobel won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1999, he donated the entire $1 million winnings to see that the Frauenkirche be rebuilt as well as a new synagogue be constructed not far away.

Image: these 4 photos come from the archives of Dwight Pounds, good friend and excellent photographer.

Image: these 4 photos come from the archives of Dwight Pounds, good friend and excellent photographer.

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We entered into and walked around the cathedral. Her pristine walls were painted to replicate her original state, all in chiffon yellow and Easter pastels.

“Think of this,” I told my boys, “even after all they’d suffered, after all the evil they’d seen, the survivors didn’t cave in. They looked ahead to when they would one day rebuild. They carefully stored every bit of the rubble they could so that when the time was right – there had to be plenty of financial, political and technological support, right?– they could actually reinsert thousands of the original stones, and right in the very place they had been in the first place. Amazing, huh?”

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Looking above our heads, we saw the cupola, which had finally been completed in the year 2000. Atop that dome, we learned, had been placed a newly gilded orb and cross fashioned by British silversmith Alan Smith, whose father, Frank, had flown in an aircrew that had bombed Dresden.Forty-five years after decimation, the cathedral’s dome and cross could finally be seen there on the banks of the Elbe.

And inside, the church’s original cross, blackened and contorted from enemy bombs, stood next to the altar, the altar which is a relief depiction of Jesus suffering in Gethsemane, and which, incidentally, had been only partially damaged in the 1945 fire raids. It and the altar had been the only segments of the structure left standing while the rest of the cathedral showered in a storm of fire and stone to the ground.

Image: worldmarketportraits

Image: worldmarketportraits

Outside now and standing with Randall and our children in a waning parallelogram of early evening sunshine, I felt warmed with hope. If out of sheer obliteration this kind of architectural and political vigor can rise, then surely out of my private patch of demolition something valuable or even beautiful might emerge.

And what would it look like?

 

Really: what does beauty from ashes actually look like?

I had the prototype standing right in front of me. Strange and imperfect, with blackened roughness touching bisque smoothness. Burned scar tissue splotchiness grafted together with taut chalky curves. Functional and strong after years of rehabilitation, a monument that was a victim to war, but which spawned a movement that reunited an entire country.  And forever in its stones a patchwork of death and life, loss and gain, destruction and reconstruction.

Strange, yes. But for me at least, reverberating with comfort that no slick or unscathed surface is able to offer.

The same holds true for our Mother Earth, whose crust, writes philosopher Eleanore Stump in “The Mirror of Evil”, is “soaked with the tears of the suffering”.

We live in a world where the wrecked victims of this human evil float on the surface of all history, animate suffering flotsam and jetsam … It’s morbid, you might say, to keep thinking about the evils of the world; it’s depressive, it’s sick.

[You might also say that if you’re grieving, what you need is Disneyland and Sleeping Beauty, not Dresden and the firebombed Church of Our Lady. But that’s just not how I work.]

… A loathing focus on the evils of our world and ourselves prepares us to be the more startled by the taste of true goodness when we find it and the more determined to follow that taste until we see where it leads. And where it leads is to the truest goodness of all… the mirror of evil becomes translucent. And we can see through it to the goodness of God…

Even our own evils – our moral evils, our decay, our death – lose their power to crush us if we see the goodness of God. The ultimate end of our lives is this, Ecclesiastes says: “The dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God who bestowed it.” (12:7) – to God, who loves us as a good mother loves her children.

-Eleanore Stump, “The Mirror of Evil”, in God and the Philosophers, ed. Thomas V. Morris. 236-243

**

I stepped a few feet from the kids and went over into the shadow just to take a last and closer look at the side of the Frauenkirche. Don’t ask me what I was checking for, but it was my instinct, and as I drew closer, I planted my palm discreetly against her outer wall.

Death stones pushing always against Life stones. Lines of mortar running like meticulous sutures all over this architectural heart that’s known implosion and rebirth.

And my kids probably nervous that I might be over there breaking down in anguish over Parker.

I wasn’t.

In that moment, I was actually just starting to be built back up.

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016. 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.

Communion at Oktoberfest

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou

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Trumpets squeal and blare through the flat blue autumn sky above Marienplatz. Tubas honk and burp in between the raucous amusement park rides on Maria Theresien Wiese. Accordions wail and wheeze on every corner of Viktualienmarkt where men dressed in lederhosen, hunting hats and woolen knee stockings are hugging two-liter steins in their portly arms.

Credit: Fugu_24 flickr

Credit: Fugu_24 flickr

Beside them are the bearded cross-dressers wearing wigs of yellow yarn braids, lip-sticked circles on their cheeks, their chest hair prickling out of the plunging necklines of their embroidered dirndls. Women dodge around them, their cleavages climbing to clavicles, doughy breasts heaving out of white lacy blouses, frilly anklets spilling out of hiking boots. Aprons tied around corseted waistlines, petticoats pouffing under gathered skirts, and everyone parading with pretzels the size of life rafts, beers the size of birdbaths, and taut pink or gray sausages the size of airline neck pillows. Yodeling, hollering, swaying and puking, broad oom-pah-pahing.

Credit: herby crus flickr

Credit: herby crus flickr

And over there by that bush, a man in a felt green hat with an enormous feather, his knickers bunched awkwardly, is relieving himself in the shrubbery.

Welcome to Brueghel meets Hieronymus Bosch, only earthier than the first and more surreal than the second.

Willkommen zum Oktoberfest.

Linda, my husband’s German work colleague, and a mother of young children, has asked to sit right next to Randall at his table. This evening is a company dinner in one of the big, tented Oktoberfest halls. Randall has done this sort of dinner more times in his career than he can count. But this time, our family’s tragedy is only weeks into our history. Already he’s having to learn to survive these settings – the loudness that feels violent, the crudeness that makes his back hunch in discomfort, shoulders bent over his thoughts so throbbing, his soul feels as if it has third degree burns.

Because of the din swirling all around, Randall’s sure this will be just another one of those evenings he’ll have to survive and then, offering some excuse –  he needs to put more money in the parking meter; a client from Asia is texting with an emergency; he might be having an allergic reaction to the latex seat covers; anything – might have to leave. This time, he sits there as he so often has, shoulder to shoulder with the joking and the jocular, trying to take part although his thoughts are rocketing beyond a galaxy away.

Linda clears her throat. She smiles at Randall. He smiles weakly, gesturing as if to ask, do you need me to scoot over? You need more space? Pretty loud here, huh! You enjoying your drink?

The miming ends as he looks down into the stein filled with mineral water with its slice of lemon bobbing like a planet off-orbit, and Linda, leaning on one elbow, takes a breath audible enough that gets Randall to look up and meet her glance:

“So,” she begins in German, “your children, how are they liking Munich. . .?”

“Thanks for asking,” he says, straining not to yell, although how else will she hear him? “Looks like they’re slowly making friends. . .”

Randall smiles. Linda rearranges her cutlery. She turns her shoulders more directly to him so as to be heard.

“And your children are. . .they are. . . adjusting to. . .their new life?” she asks, her eyebrows raised.

“Oh, I think so, although there are a lot of. . .of challenges,” he answers.

“And you and your wife. . .are you. . .is it. . .can you tell me. . .” she freezes and looks at the napkin she now notices she’s been holding crumpled in her lap. “And you two are. . .I mean. . .after what has. . .you and your family. . .”

Linda stretches and presses her napkin flat across her knees, then lifts it up, laying it like a wrinkled tarp  over her plate. Wiping one hand over her eyes, exhaling, she then props the weight of her whole upper body on one arm by planting the heel of her hand on her forehead between her brows. A pause, and her next sentence comes awkwardly, in half-whispers, as she leans closer; “Randall. I’m just trying to ask you about your son.” Her tone thickens, “I am so sorry, Randall. Can you. . . please – I hope this is not hurtful – but can you please tell me about your son?”

A simple question, and you’d think an invisible glass dome has descended – swoosh – on this moment in the far corner of this tent teeming with partiers. At the same overcrowded banquet table where bedlam is the first thing on the menu – only feet from the yodeling accordion player, right next to where the jaded waitress grunts under the pewter tray holding eight beer steins she hoists overhead, inches from where two men (already plastered) swat at her ruffled skirt – amid that whirl of chaos that is so much this world, madness recedes. Suspended at least for an hour, the world and its deafening excesses fade for two work colleagues, who sit side by side, elbow to elbow, talking and wiping tears at Oktoberfest.

Credit: Cpt@ flickr

Credit: Cpt@ flickr

Antonini, Part 1

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All of today’s photos come from the private archives of my father, David Dalton. He recently gifted me with 20,000 shots cataloguing our family’s life. This post I gratefully gift to him on his 78th birthday. Love you, Dad.

It was late autumn of 1987 in Warsaw, Poland as my parents, my husband and I found our way down what the Poles call Memory Lane, a street whose existence, however much its name sounds like a Nat King Cole tune, marks one of the most bitter delineations in modern history.  This was the border of the city’s former Jewish ghetto.

Only meters from our path was where the infamous month-long resistance had taken place, biggest of its kind in World War II, when 13,000 Jews – men, women and children – lost their lives fighting the Nazis’ effort to empty the ghetto with violence. Nearly all of its inhabitants were sent to the their deaths either right on their doorsteps or in outlying extermination camps.

On this particular morning we eventually found ourselves standing in the shadow of the looming grey stone monument to the resistance. It is, appropriately, a massive wall with sculpted figures emerging from the surface, thrusting hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, and bare fists into the air.

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I stamped my feet lightly against the late October chill and my husband wrapped an arm around me. We followed my mom, who was, as always, reading aloud to us from a guide book.  My dad, meanwhile, was in the middle of the square taking pictures. I could see he was also trying to keep warm, as a puff of vapor rose from his mouth.  Despite the late morning sun creeping over the upper edge of the 36 ft. (11 meter) tall monument, the world was chilled and palpably sober.

Then from a distance, I saw a white-haired man in a black beret and gray trench coat approach and begin talking with my dad. In a minute or so, my dad waved that we all should come. Quickly.  As I came closer, I saw the man held a small bunch of flowers laterally across himself, almost like one would carry a child.

“Shalom,” the man said to each of us as we approached.

“Shalom,” we each responded.

“Peace.”

And in return, “Peace.”

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The man was maybe sixty years old, compact and softly contoured with a face hauntingly reminiscent of a late Rembrandt self-portrait. The conversation as we entered it was an oddly functional hybrid of Yiddish (spoken by the stranger) and German, from the rest of us.

“Antonini,” my dad held his hand toward the man while turning to us to explain, “has come today on behalf of his kranke katholische Frau,” (his “sick Catholic wife”), whose birthday it was, and who’d asked that flowers be laid on this memorial site. The man and his wife had followed this ritual for decades, Antonini explained. Every birthday and on all other significant dates during the year, the two came here zur Erinnerung, or in remembrance.

With the hands of a butcher, I thought – thick  fingers, padded palms – Antonini carefully laid the flowers at the foot of the monument, then stepped back on his thick-soled brown leather shoes.  They looked like they were at least twenty years old but had been meticulously maintained ever since. Probably polished them this morning, I thought. He was dressed neatly yet modestly, and from where I stood now at his side I focused on his white sideburn that matched the shock of hair just over his ear. His profile was placid, almost immobile, as he looked up  at the monument and into its vigorous and oversized faces chiseled in stone.

“We’re so sorry your wife is ill, Antonini,” my mom said. “Why, if we might ask, would your Catholic wife want to pay special tribute to those lost in the Jewish uprising?”

His arms held politely to his sides, Antonini now brought his fingers together, lacing them at the tips, then lifted and dropped them once with a single breath. “Warum?” he sighed.

Why?

“Because this,” he said, glancing at the monument, “is our story, my wife’s and mine.” His eyes fell to the ground a few feet from where we stood, to a large engraved metal disc made to resemble a manhole cover. This, we’d read earlier, was the first monument to the uprising, a reminder of the manholes through which hundreds of Jews had lowered themselves into Warsaw’s sewer system in order to smuggle goods or to escape annihilation on the street. Countless many had hidden for days and weeks in those sewers, and upon trying to emerge, the Nazis fumigated them with Zyklon.

“This story,” my dad stepped closer, “your wife’s story, your story, would you mind sharing it with us? Unless, of course. . .forgive me. . .it’s too pain-“

“Nein. Ich meine, Ja. Ja, natürlich,” Antonini interjected warmly, “natürlich kann ich sie Ihnen erzählen.”

No, I mean yes, yes of course. He wanted to share the story with us.

That is, if we wanted to hear it.

Over a two-hour lunch at a Chinese restaurant on Warsaw’s main square, (my dad had asked Antonini where we could take him for a warm lunch; this was his choice!), Antonini shared his story.  We sat at a corner table with the window and its filmy white lace curtains at my back. I remember the afternoon in vivid film clips and didn’t miss a single detail of Antonini, neither his soft mouth as it molded around the German with its Yiddish lilt, nor his expressive eyes that were tokens of a life beyond my comprehension. We wrote it all down:

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I was seventeen when I fought in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis who had overtaken Warsaw. Along with all of the other Jewish teenaged boys I knew, I was shipped off to Lublin. I was separated from my family, from my beloved and gifted older brother, David, who was then the concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. By a miracle and driven by my concern for my family and neighbors whose fate I could not know and was pained to imagine, I eventually escaped from Lublin. I made my way back to Warsaw. What would I find there? From my family, who still remained? And if they did remain, in what condition?

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I was so weak when I finally reached the city that I could only crawl in silence, terrified with every movement that I would be sighted by the enemy and tortured or murdered on the spot. At some point I grew delirious from hunger and fatigue and collapsed in the middle of a street.

I was awakened when someone, I did not know who, lifted me and carried me quickly out of sight and into a home. It was the home of a Catholic family who then fed me and gave me water to drink. They proceeded to care for me in every way they could although they, too, were victims of war with food and other goods in scarce supply, their own health and well-being at serious risk.  They then hid me for many, many months in their basement.  They hid me, as a matter of fact, until the war was over. They saved me.

When the Nazis retreated from Warsaw I finally discovered the horrors that had happened to my people.  Flamethrowers and smoke bombs had been used to drive out or kill all the inhabitants of the ghetto.  All those left had been shipped, as I had been, to extermination at Lublin, Treblinka, and other concentrations camps.

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The resistance had ended a month after it had begun when, with the press of one detonator button, Warsaw’s great Jewish synagogue had been instantly turned to rubble. In the end, after searching everywhere, I found that my entire family – parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and my dear David – had died.  I was alone in the world.

The Catholic family gave me more than the gift of survival by hiding me under their roof.  They gave me a future. They advised that until it was absolutely secure for Jews to move freely in society, I should change my identity.  Antonini is the new name I took; I had to deny my Jewishnesss, and for years ceased to speak Yiddish or Hebrew.

And in time the remarkable happened: their daughter and I – we had been through so much together – we married.  I married the Catholic daughter of my adopted Catholic family, the only family that remained for me.

To my knowledge – and I must believe this is true, since I have been in Warsaw all these forty years since and know the Jewish community here well – I am the last living survivor of the Ghetto Uprising.  I am where that terrible story ends.

We finished our lunch.

Asking what time it was, Antonini apologized but he really needed to get home to his ill wife. While we paid the bill, we had all the leftovers packed up for him to take home, although the waitress puzzled openly at the idea of “leftovers.” (The people she knew, people who had known real hunger, never ever had food, what was it called? “Left over”? ) But she found three large glass jars in the kitchen, filled them with everything we hadn’t been able to touch for all our fixation on Antonini’s story tellng, and put the heavy jars in a nylon sack.  After thanking us for that extra food that would make for his wife’s birthday meal, Antonini shared one parting detail:

“In Jerusalem in the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, a trees stands in honor of my wife.  We received a formal letter with a picture and identification attached inviting both of us to the dedication.  Signed by prime minister Menachem Begin. Framed. It hangs in the middle of our apartment wall.”

We clapped and laughed in quiet celebration for our friend, and told him how wonderful an honor that was.

“Yes,” he nodded, his head titled slightly to one side.  “But of course we could never afford to travel,” Antonini’s eyes were, for the first time in over three hours together, not just glassy with tears but spilling over with them.  “And now my wife is too ill to make the trip. She’ll probably never see her tree.”

With that, my parents looked to each other, my mom sat up ramrod straight, beaming, and my dad’s usually professorial face softened, melted. He let out a single, muffled laughed. Then he lifted one eyebrow.

“Antonini,” my dad said, clearing his throat and leaning his whole weight on his elbows on the table, looking Antonini in the eyes, “it so happens that our youngest son, Aaron, will be in Jerusalem in two weeks. He is part of the study abroad group we are leading in Vienna, and some of the students are going to be visiting the Holy Land.”

My mom jumped in, “Can we give you a gift, Antonini?  Can we promise you that Aaron will visit the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles for your wife?”

“He’ll take a picture of the tree, of the honorary plaque,” my dad said, “and then may he send that photo to your address? A belated birthday gift? To your wife?”

And in one slow-mo instant right in front of me I witnessed a transformation. Our Rembrandt portrait came to life.  His lips parted. Then they pursed.  Then, almost imperceptibly, his eyes widened. Then he bent into his shoulders, slowly placing one wrinkled hand and then the other across his chest. He shook his bald head to one side and then, heaving a sigh, to the other. Then he brought his stare up to meet our collective stare, and spoke in half a voice, “Heute haben Sie einen schweren Stein von meinem Herzen aufgehoben.”

“Today, you have lifted a heavy stone from my heart.”

With those words we all embraced, exchanged addresses, and watched our Antonini walk away, a big bag of bottled egg foo yong and fried rice hanging at his elbow.

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As he walked up the street and around the corner, I felt the words, “heavy stone” echoing in my mind and I focused on the weight of that sack, the one Antonini was going to carry alone and all the way home. How far did he have to go yet, I wondered. How many blocks? Would the weight of the bottles break the handles of the sack? How many times would he have to stop, bend over, place the bag on the ground, straighten his tired back, rub those padded palms together and knead those thick fingers, bend over again, switch arms, heft the sack and trudge on, one step at a time?

He’d insisted, though. He’d said he could carry it alone, the bag, that he didn’t want to burden us with it. Really, his home was not far, he’d smiled with those moist painter’s eyes.  Not far at all.

And you know? I believed Antonini. He’d be fine. He was resilient, after all.  One of the great survivors. The last of his own people.  Certainly if anyone could carry a weight all alone, it was he.

So I waved one last time as he came to the last corner, waved with both arms in the air and raised up on my tip toes. Auf Wiedersehen! Bye! Shalom!

I don’t have to tell you I was pretty young and inexperienced. Dewy.  Unscarred. You’ll forgive me, I hope, that back then I’d had little visceral experience with the harsher realities of life, and so although drawn to Antonini and captivated by his story, I wonder today: did I see him?  Did I truly see and experience who he was? Because I know only now that I had no eye, really – no cellular sense – for the ponderous but invisible weight of his vast loss and lasting grief, the burden of his lifelong loneliness.

Maybe Antonini could manage just fine without me. Chances are he did.  And that evening, he and his sick Catholic wife had a joyous dinner during which he had his own unusual story to tell of a family of foreigners who were at the monument that morning. How they listened to the story. How their son – Aaron, a good Hebrew name!– is traveling to Jerusalem. . .

I can go for days on the fumes alone of that thought.

I wonder, too, what might I have learned from walking – continuing, listening, carrying even a bit of Antonini’s bag of leftovers – just a few more steps? A few more steps or even, if he had let me, the rest of the way home?

**
Antonini, Part 2 in our next post. . .

Freshly Pressed?

Here we are, five of our six. I'm including today a selection of my favorite photographs from my previous posts.  All of them, with the exception of this one taken by Rob Inderrieden, I took. Enjoy! So glad you're here.

Here we are, five of the six Bradfords. I’m including today a selection of some of my favorite photographs from several of my previous posts. All of them, with the exception of this one taken by Rob Inderrieden, I took. Enjoy!

Hello, everyone. It is great to have you here.

Judging by the variety and number of readers this week’s Freshly Pressed incident (and what doyou call it?) has drawn here, we’ve got some rich times ahead. One of my readers suspected that I probably didn’t fully “get” what it means to be Freshly Pressed, but that reader was gracious in suggesting that it was probably best that way.

And I didn’t.

And it is.

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I don’t mind this little flurry of recognition. It would be false to say much else, since we serious writers ache to create something someone will find worth reading. And we’re a bit tired of being that Someone, reading to ourselves. (Oh, the echoing drone of one’s own voice in the caverns of one’s head.)

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So it’s heartening to have you here, reading as you apparently are. Your presence is invaluable to me, and I want to honor it with vivid, meaty material that will invigorate thinking and stir feeling, and open up the possibility of a nourishing connection between us, all of us.

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I write because for me, writing is a physical and spiritual imperative. Is it also like that for you? If the significant happens – in my world, or in The World – I feel compelled to engraven it, pin its largeness down, trap it somehow. Then I lean close and marvel at watching its complexity or simplicity crystalize on the page. My readers, I hope, share in that marveling, not, of course, because I am marvelous (although my husband seems to think I am, dear guy), but because the potential of our human reach irrefutably is. Words stimulate and facilitate that reach. Almost all of us, when we were babies, reached – and touched and connected and established ourselves as a teeny but proud pinprick part of humanity – first with words.

So. Here we are. May I explain some things?

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I write long.
You’ll want to get a drink. And oxygen tanks.

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I write books.
Two are in either the editing or legal approval phases as we chat right here, you and I.

The first to be published (with Familius and later this spring) will be Global Mom: A Memoir, and is about our family’s 20+ years on the international road. I’ve been posting excerpts of that manuscript here every week for some time, now.

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The second book is an anthology (with a chapter-long essay as introduction) on loss, grief, and adaptation. Its title is Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward. Here, I post liberally from its 300+ pages of wise and varied voices.

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I also write short.
I am a published poet and will post some of my (long-ish) shorts here. I’ve posted several pieces already; dig a minute and you’re bound to find them.

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I also write creative personal essays.
Some have been published in journals and other blogs, and one recently garnered an award. I’ll post excerpts of them here, too.

I am beginning a children’s book
It will address loss and living onward and will be done in collaboration with a gifted illustrator. I’ll ask for your input. You’ll meet the illustrator if and when she’s ready to be revealed. Her work alone is worth hanging around for.

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And finally,

I am a poser of a photographer.

I’m learning to blend my newfound wonder for photography with my life-long and hard-core passion for the written word.

That’s this cozy sky blue/ocean blue blog you’re sitting in the middle of right this very moment.

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What else, you ask, can I expect when I come here to visit Melissa? (Besides, you mean, long-ish, probing posts that sometimes leak tears and sometimes crackle with laughter?)

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The last posts, as you’ve perhaps read by now, have treated some “Don’t Do’s” of co-mourning: Don’t judge or preach, don’t disregard or disappear, don’t enforce arbitrary deadlines, etc. Over the coming posts, you can expect me to examine the nature of “Can Do’s” in the face of great grief. In two posts from now, for instance, I’ll tell about the necessity of “Continuing” by introducing you to Antonini, a family friend, who was the last survivor of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Enough to reduce to moltenness any brittleness in our spines, that post should not be missed.

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Through the posts beyond that, and with your help, we’ll delve into the experience of the death of a beloved. What does it mean to a mother? A father? A sibling? Grandparents? A friend? An extended community? Strangers? What are the implications of tragic loss for our faith? For our non-faith? In other words, what can we learn, broadly and specifically, from death and other losses? What meaning do we deliberately or indiscriminately assign to suffering, to “mortality’s primary companion,” as one insightful reader here put it?

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At that point, I’ll update our Table of Contents. By then, Global Mom will be ripe for public consumption and you’ll probably want to return with me to those excerpts and our family’s years living in Paris, (where I last dropped off my readers somewhere on the rainy cobblestones near the Louvre), then continue to Munich, then Singapore and finally to where we live now, in Switzerland.

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There’s plenty to share with you about Switzerland, as there is about Sicily, where our daughter lives as a missionary (really – who’s going to believe this?) among the Mafia.

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And I will faithfully update you on news on Grief and Grace.

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Before we all finish that morning cup, stretch our arms and brush the wrinkles out of our pants, a parting quote from Peter Wehmeier’s, Picasso und die christliche Ikonographie.

If I can claim a personal mantra as a writer, this would be it:

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In the face of death, art’s duty – indeed, her raison d’être – is to recall absent loved ones, console anxieties, evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, surmount isolation, and facilitate the expression of the unutterable.

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Again, thank you for coming here. For all the reasons listed in that quote, I hope you’ll come often.

Annie Dillard: Frayed & Nibbled

The following text comes from the 13th chapter of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, a singular poetic/scientific meditation on heaven and earth, a Pulitzer Prize-winning walk through the world.  These photographs were taken in the vast and lush English Gardens by our gifted friend Rob Inderrieden the day before we moved from Munich to Singapore.

Is our birthright and heritage to be, like Jacob’s cattle on which the life of a nation was founded, “ring-streaked, speckled, and spotted” not with the spangling marks of grace like beauty rained down from eternity, but with the blotched assaults and quarryings of time?

“We are all of us clocks,” says Eddington, “whose faces tell the passing years.” The young man proudly names his scars for his lover; the old man alone before a mirror erases his scars with his eyes and sees himself whole.

“In nature,” wrote Huston Smith, “the emphasis is in what is rather than what ought to be.” I learn this lesson in a new way everyday. It must be, I think tonight, that in a certain sense only the newborn in this world are whole, that as adults we are expected to be, and necessarily, somewhat nibbled. It’s par for the course. Physical wholeness is not something we have barring accident; it itself is accidental, an accident of infancy, like a baby’s fontanel or the egg-tooth on a hatchling. Are the five-foot silver eels that migrate as adults across meadows by night actually scarred with the bill marks of herons, flayed by the sharp teeth of bass? I think of the beautiful sharks I saw from the shore, hefted and held aloft in a light-shot wave. Were those sharks sliced with scars, were there mites in their hides and worms in their hearts? Did the mockingbird that plunged from the rooftop, folding its wings, bear in its buoyant quills a host of sucking lice?

The summer is old. A gritty, colorless dust cakes the melons and squashes, and worms fatten within on the bright, sweet flesh. The world is festering with suppurating sores. . .Have I walked too much, aged beyond my years?. . .There are the flies that make a wound, the flies that find a wound, and a hungry world that won’t wait till I’m decently dead.

I think of the green insect shaking the web from its wings, and of the whale-scarred crab-eater seals. They demand a certain respect. The only way I can reasonably talk about all this is to address you directly and frankly as a fellow survivor. Here we so incontrovertibly are.

That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it. . .But knowledge does not vanquish mystery, or obscure its distant lights. I still now and will tomorrow steer by what happened that day when some undeniably new spirit roared down the air, bowled me over, and turned on the lights.

Can I say then that corruption is one of beauty’s deep-blue speckles, that the frayed and nibbled fringe of the world is a tallith, a prayer shawl, the intricate garment of beauty?

It is very tempting, but I honestly cannot. But I can, however, affirm that corruption is not beauty’s very heart.

And I can I think call the vision of the cedar and the knowledge of these wormy quarryings twin fiords cutting in the granite cliffs of mystery, and say that the new is always present simultaneously with the old, however hidden. The tree with the lights in it does not go out; that light still shines on an old world, now feebly, now bright.




I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating, too. I am not washed and beautiful,in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections, but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.


Simone Weil says simply, “Let us love the country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love.”

“The fact is, ” said Van Gogh, “the fact is that we are painters in real life,and the important thing is to breathe as hard as ever we can breathe.”

Thank you, Rob and Tasha Inderrieden, for the beautiful photographs, but even more, for the indelible memories

I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.

In Amber

After eight years in Paris, our family was moving to Munich.  A big move, a bit of a sad move, but not an impossible move, given that we were sending Parker off to college at exactly the same time, and this seemed like a practical juncture for turning in a fresh direction on our family’s ongoing international track. Besides, we couldn’t just keep on enjoying Paris without the one family member who loved Paris as much as or more than any of the rest of us.

You know by now what happened during that move.

It was a logistical tight rope for about two weeks as all six of us straddled continents: our goods had just landed from Paris in Munich where I had been setting up house; the three youngest  we’d sent two weeks earlier to the States to be with relatives; Parker we’d sent ahead to something called Freshman Academy at college only a five-hour drive from my parents’.  And Randall, who was setting up Internet and cell phones and getting traction in his new job, I had just left behind in Munich when I flew ahead to the western U.S. to rejoin our children and visit Parker on his campus. We all kept in touch every day with wildly flying texts, emails, and phone calls.

Randall and I were on the phone several times a day, in fact, plotting what was going to be his earlier-than-expected arrival that Saturday, July the 21st.  We would show up at the door of this oldest son’s first college apartment, Randall and I snickered on the phone, all five of us, swim suits in hand, since there were all these “fun swimming holes” in the area, Parker had told us, places all the local kids had taken the newly-arrived students to.

A big family surprise on Saturday morning.  That had been our plan.

We were all together that Saturday morning.  That much was true to plan.

But under such circumstances as to make my fingers shake even today, five years later, when I try to type them.

So I won’t try to type them.

Only days after Parker’s funeral we found our family of five stepping off a Delta flight in Munich’s airport. New home.  New world.  Alien world.  Cold world.  Death-drenched world. The apartment we had chosen before major tragedy blew the floor and ceiling out of our universe, had been strategically situated for our planned needs. It was in the center of Munich.  A short bike ride to Munich’s Univeristät.  A block from the adjoining English Garden.  Our plan had been that I enroll in a Ph.D. program and in December Parker would return to us for Christmas.  He would wait the few weeks or months for his assignment as a missionary for our church. He would share a part of the apartment with Claire, his best friend and sister, who would be slaving away at the International Baccalaureate at high school.  He could help her.  He could also be close to student life at the nearby Universität.  He could cross country ski with his little brothers across the vast English Garden.  We could soak up being all together again before his two long years of missionary service. Those were our plans.

And by now you’re beginning to understand the relative uselessness of plans.

Plans.  They can blow up in shrapnel and smoke, and underneath those plumes of dust and debris, you finger through ruins, making up something new.

But “fingering through” is misleading as a figure of speech, since what really happens is more of a bloody-knuckled scraping and bare-handed shoveling, which demands full body-and-spirit engagement. It saps you.  And because it does, you spend a great deal of time lying down.  And sitting.

Randall and I walked, when we could, throughout the English Gardens.  And more often we sat.  There were many dedicated benches throughout the garden — “Für Mutti, zum 70en Geburtstag”, “Helmuth und Brunhilde, Immer Liebe.”  We sat on these tributes to the living, most of the time exhausted by sorrow and by the work of just breathing.  The work of just sitting.

Along a tributary of the Isar River in Munich’s English Garden

One day, I envisioned a bench in this park. For our Parker.

Randall and I found our way to a small yellowish converted home in the  middle of the park, the office of the one and only gentleman whose job it is to oversee the installation of dedicated benches. Herr Barthlemes was lanky in his worn beige corduroy trousers and heavy rubberized walking shoes, his bony shoulders poking like the angles of a metal clothes hanger under an olive-green sweater with five dark leather buttons.  As we walked the garden, this man, my husband and I, talking quietly about where to place a bench for our eldest son, Herr Barthlemes wrapped and tucked a plaid woolen shawl in orange and mustard around his neck, a neck as lean as the trunks of the trees that looked underfed and desolate as they shed their fall colors.

Fall.  The dead season. To my grieving eyes, absolutely everything spoke death.

“Normally,” Herr Barthelmes explained as we walked slowly along the pathway that encircles a big open field smack dab in the garden’s heart, “we only put the dedication plaques on the backs of these green painted benches.” He pointed to six benches placed along the path we were walking.

“And if we understood correctly,” Randall said, “we have to choose a green bench that’s already standing in the garden, is that right?”

“Right,” the gentleman nodded. I thought then that if he spoke English he might make a good Jimmy Stewart from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“But. . .what if we’re thinking of a place other than where these green benches already stand?” I asked. I had thought of something maybe close to water, even next to the small canal-like river. A place by a waterfall? Was there a lagoon? Anything that looked like Idaho?

View to the Grosser Wasserfall, English Garden, Munich

“It depends on when you want this finished, Frau Bradford.  You mentioned February 20th? Is this your son’s birthday? You want to surprise him?” Barthlemes smiled softly and winked.

Randall and I looked at each other. We all kept strolling.

“Herr Barthlemes, you’re right.  That’s our son’s birthday,” Randall said. “But it won’t really. . .it won’t be a surprise for him.”

The trees were dropping leaves –- ochre, burnt red, even some bright green ones — as I listened to my husband explain to this tall German stranger the story of our boy. I’d never noticed until that moment that green leaves fall, too.

As Randall finished, Herr Barthlemes stopped in his tracks.  I looked at him. His face was different from the face of two minutes earlier. Melted. And his eyes seemed larger.

“Herr Bradford, das ist ja doch etwas ganz anderes.”

Now that’s something totally different, he said.

Very close to February 20th, Herr Jimmy Stewart Barthlemes, whom I never saw again and whom I have never thanked in person, hand made a handsome one-of-a-kind brown bench —an etwas anderes, or something different. He had told us he wanted to do this for our son. We ordered an inscribed bronze plaque, delivered it to his little office, and he had it affixed, the whole thing weatherproofed, then installed in an ideal spot as a gift for what would have been our child’s 19th Birthday.

The bench stands right next to the tributary of Munich’s Isar, a place where two canals converge, pass over falls, and get swallowed up under a bridge.

I wrote this poem in increments sitting, at times, on that very bench.  It is there right now awaiting others who are maybe crazy in love (I’ve seen them kissing there), weary from life (I’ve gathered the discarded cigarette butts myself), or exhausted by sorrow, a natural counterpart to love, a natural part of life.

Photo: Rob Inderrieden

In Amber
Ezekiel 1: 4-7
Im Englischen Garten
München, November 2009, All Souls” Day
Für Christa B.

Go straight toward Himmelsreich,
turn right into Paradies
cross into the tunnel upholstered in
the gingered patina of brocaded taffeta.
Tread the suede elegance of fallen flames,
bind to your soles these hieroglyphs of silence
which draw you deep into muted fluorescence.
You are rapt.
You are in amber
Or Bernstein, burned stone born of
interior clefts in injured trees.
You are in resin,
that umber ooze of congealed spirit
spilling out of hurting hollows.
You are lured,
captured
You are saved
as were nature’s relics 320 million years ago. . .

Two years ago
(same month, same trees, same branches and tunnel)
this was not the same. I saw only desolation.
Haggard branches scratching for air, cadaverous,
grisly. Gasping their last breath of death.
I walked this sodden altar piled with sacrificial scabs
in elegiac tones
(bruise, gash, decay, corpse)
as the dank air clung to my neck
like ashes and dust.
Since then, no whirlwind nor great cloud nor fire infolding itself.
Just this load of despair like moldering foliage
which has soaked my soil, seeped through sediment,
spread to root, been incorporated
a mineral swell compost
so that today
this All Souls’ Day
I have grown new ears for flamboyant hymn-singing trees
and eyes for upthrust birded limbs, celebrant and winking
throngs of happy timber
and out of the midst thereof
in the midst of voluptuous shade-fire
I could swear we are captured
every last living thing is enclosed
in this furtive moltenness the color of burnished brass
so that all things are present,
preserved in amber.

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For a related post I wrote on this topic, please refer to:

segullah.org/daily special/all-saints’-day-all-souls’-day/

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© 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.