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.

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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.

Warsaw, Poland: Wesołego Alleluja!

This week promises a daily post on Global Mom’s week spent traveling with her family in Poland.

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Why travel to Poland at this time of year? There were a number of reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to stand with our two youngest, our two teenaged boys, in the sites made infamous by the Holocaust.  In two posts from now, I’ll return to that part of our journey in detail.

Another guiding reason for choosing wintry Poland over a sunny place to the south, was because Poland, as you might know, is a predominantly Catholic country. And this was Easter. And I’d researched how elaborate yet reverent the Polish Easter celebrations are. This drew me.  So much, actually, that I began practicing the Polish equivalent of “Happy Easter”; Wesołego Alleluja!

But, you ask, isn’t Italy also Catholic?  And warm? Wouldn’t you find an Easter celebration there…or two? With the Pope, maybe?

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Actually, Italy is officially 80% Catholic, while Poland is nearly 90%. But you’re right that Italy is a good 20 degrees warmer than Poland when an unexpected Noreaster sweeps down from the Baltic Sea, shizzes through Poland’s primeval forests, crackles over the northern lowlands, and drops a major snowstorm on Warsaw just as the blossoms and pussy willows are being gathered for the holiday bouquets that worshippers gift each other or bring to their neighborhood cathedral. Poland’s Easter is usually brisk; this year it was glacial.

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Still, I think you’ll see in the following gallery that cold temperatures did little to freeze Polish devotion.  Cathedrals full to overflowing. Easter flowers and offering baskets sold and toted everywhere.  And that one little fragile Babcia (grandma), who, upon leaving St. Anne’s cathedral on Warsaw’s Old Town square, stopped, set her basket on the stone floor, unwrapped the shawl around her chin, and leaned forward to kiss the wooden feet of the Christ statue on the entry cross.

(No, I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – get that shot.)

But I got others. So enjoy, and feel free to share.

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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.

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.

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Standing room only at an evening service in the middle of Easter week.

Standing room only at an evening service early in Easter week.

Every cathedral we visited was like this.

Every cathedral  we visited was like this

Street - as - refrigerator

Street refrigeration

Lazienki Park, or the royal gardens, Warsaw

Lazienki Park, or the royal gardens, Warsaw

Lazienki Park, Warsaw

Lazienki Park

Monument to Polish son, Frederic Chopin, Lazienki Park

Monument to Polish son, Frederic Chopin, Lazienki Park

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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.

upright rain image

Swiss Strolling

Let's take a walk. . .

All images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013

. . . through my village overlooking Lac Léman. . .

Let’s take a walk. . . through my village overlooking Lac Léman. . .

. . .past the cold and withered vineyards . . .

. . .past the cold and withered vineyards . . .

. . .behind Swiss strollers. . .

. . .behind Swiss strollers. . .

. . .into Nyon, minutes from my door . . .

. . .into Nyon, minutes from my door . . .

. . .too late for lunch. . .

. . .too late for lunch, too early for dinner. . .

. . .into the old town quarter. . .

. . .into the old town quarter. . .

. . .with skies the same color as stone. . .

. . .under skies the color of stone. . .

. . .chimneys, tile roofs, solar panels. . .

. . .chimneys, red tile roofs, solar panels. . .

. . .the African refugees running from local police. . .

. . .and African refugees running from local police. . .

. . .the loudest sound in the street is the click of my camera. . .

. . .the loudest sound right now is the click of my camera. . .

. . ."to sort is to show you value something": compulsory recycling bags. . .

. . .”to sort is to show you value something”: compulsory recycling bags. . .

. . .late afternoon, the steeple of the primary school. . .

. . .late afternoon, the steeple of the primary school. . .

. . .your common housetop ornament. . .

. . .your common housetop ornament. . .

. . .Nyon's trademark yellow street lamps. . .

. . .Nyon’s trademark yellow street lamps. . .

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. . .her daily shopping. . .

. . .her daily shopping. . .

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. . .five bells toll from the church. . .

. . .five bells toll from the church. . .

. . .Nyon was once Noviodunum, a Roman outpost. . .

. . .Nyon was once Noviodunum, a Roman outpost. . .

. . .view over Lac Léman. . .

. . .view over Lac Léman. . .but no view to Mont Blanc today. . .

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. . .along the ancient ramparts. . .

. . .along the ancient ramparts. . .

. . .Château de Nyon. . .

. . .Château de Nyon. . .

. . .Château and the newest church in town with its belfry. . .

. . .the Château and the newest church in town with its triangular belfry. . .

. . .view upwards from the lake front. . .

. . .view upwards from the lake front. . .

. . .lake front. . .

. . .lake front. . .

. . .Lac Léman. . .

. . .Lac Léman. . .

. . .and the Swiss stroller. . .

. . .and whom should we meet, but the Swiss stroller. . .

. . .Goodnight, moon. . .

. . .Goodnight, moon. . .

Comparing: Sorrow That The Eye Can’t See

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Their holiday greeting cards? Picture perfect, every last one. Fifteen years ago, all in matching pastels romping in the surf at Cape Cod. Ten years ago, all four kids plus Mom and Dad swinging in the arms of their backyard maple tree. A couple of years after that, rumpled and ruddy-cheeked vogueness in a glittery snowscape with that year’s added essential; Bogart, the Labrador retriever.

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Because she is more sister than friend to me, I’d known for some time what kind of patchy reality lay beneath the airbrush of these annual images. In fact, I knew the moment when there wouldn’t be any more holiday cards. Well, not for a while, at least. In any event, never another one with Dad.

“Melissa, I’ve found. . .found out something. It is terrible. Something so terrible. . .”

Her voice on the phone dissolved into darkened tones that barely rose above a whisper. I had to hold one hand over my eyes to block out the sunshine that ricocheted off the blunt blows she narrated through restrained anguish.

She’d discovered a lie. The lie. Then more lies. Lies that revealed a separate apartment. A hidden bank account. His falsified business trips.  His serial affairs.

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I had to sit down. My legs were liquid.

“How long has–?”

Years, Melissa. I think this has been going on. . .I can’t. . . I’m having a hard. . .it’s hard just breathe–”

“And you’ve got proof–”

“It’s all right here. I’m holding it in my hands. Receipts. From his pocket when I was supposed to take his jacket to the cleaners. And I started tracing where he was making bank withdrawals. They weren’t where he said he was traveling. And then I found the messages left on the cell he forgot in the car when I dropped him at the airport. I had this haunting feeling and so I. . .there were those expenses he couldn’t explain. . .the erratic behavior. . and all his lavish gifts for me when he’d stay away an extra weekend. . .Penance payment, I see that now. Oh, Melissa, what am I –”

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Her voice, usually smooth and thick as fresh cream, erupted in one jagged sob. She sucked in the breath of someone going under for a long time. I had to lean back flat on the sofa to get enough breath myself; my lungs cramped so I folded over onto my side and cried along with her. We talked for two hours straight.

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What did they all mean, her twenty-something years of steady devotion?  Supporting him through grad studies? Having and raising babies while he climbed the ladder? Four preteens then teens then getting the eldest off to college? Where did I go wrong, she kept asking me, Did I misread his tension, she asked, Every marriage has its stretches of tension, I said, But all these recent inexplicable blow-ups, she told me, Did I do something? Put too much pressure on him, she’d asked, and No wonder he was at the gym every free hour, it seemed, getting fit. Lean. Buff. He told me I should be grateful he was keeping healthy. Not letting himself go. 

With eyes closed, I listened. Their manicured holiday cards pulsed and swirled on the screen of my mind.  And I remembered her phone voice from a year earlier, telling me he’s started getting mani-pedis, Melissa, body waxing, weekly massages. 

Oh, these men and their midlife crises, she’d said.

And I’d said, Uh. . . not the crises I know. What’s going on? You’d better find out.

Then she’d released the single, heavy pant of a work horse.

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“Honey, looks like I’ll have to stay over here another weekend,” he’d sighed when calling from New York. Or San Francisco. Or London. Or was it Bangkok this time? “This new CEO’s got me on this huge project and, well. . .You know.”

Somewhere along the way he’d developed a new laugh. It was a shrink-wrapped kind of cackle. She’d hardly recognized it as his, had hardly recognized who he seemed to be.

Yes, that was it.  He seemed to be someone. His presence, less frequent but more theatrical, made her uneasy. Why do you need all these new designer carry-ons? She’d asked that once. He’d nearly blinded her with his flippant, anger-propelled spittle, and that time he left before the weekend at home was even over. Sooner than planned. Sooner than promised.

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When she found him out, when she told him his betrayal was exposed, he was indignant. And then he was utterly infuriated that she would “humiliate” him like this. Then, as quickly as he’d spiked in a rage, he’d softened.  He’d cleared his throat, dredging up an apology. He’d asked,”Why can’t we just stay together? For the sake of propriety?” He would keep his “other side” quiet, he said. Not disturb the children with it. That way, there would be no public shame.  “We can keep things clean and tidy.”

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In any case, she shouldn’t tell her parents about this, he warned, his ears pinned back. And his parents? He strictly forbade her to speak a word. The tip of his index finger thudded with each syllable into the countertop as he made. his. point.

The day she told the children was the same day she filed.

And then she fled.

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Within a month and without raising her head or her voice, she’d sold the house and moved to a place far away. She would start over there, she hoped, start over after two decades living the only life she knew. She would start over wearing the safe sheath of anonymity. She could create a new identity in a network that she prayed would hold up the bundle of rubble that was now her life.  The rest of her life.

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Severed  by several hours on a plane from him didn’t remove her from the whole blistering distress that she now realized had dragged on for years. A desert of a marriage. Parched.  So arid it made her throat dry and her lips crack even though sometimes she was crying and sobbing lying on her side on the floor of her closet in this old basement rental. And now that the legal process was in full swing, that shrink-wrapped persona of his was showing signs of splitting at the seams. He warned her she’d not only mess up everyone’s lives, but she’d never make it in the world on her own. “Look at you,” she heard his voice sneering over the phone, “Do you have any skills?” He warned her that she was unmarketable.

Or had he said, “Unremarkable”?

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With verbal sleight-of-hand, he turned the children against her, planting suspicion and blame in their hearts. He softly undermined her, and then with spite and fear hissing through his incisors, told her she was acting ungrateful for all the years of service he’d poured into her.

And what about my gifts? He asked in a call where she finally had to give him her lawyer’s name because from now on all communication would go through that office. You’re sure not acting very grateful for all my gifts.  There was that pout again. He had mastered it and other methods of manipulation. Or so he thought. She was growing Teflon shoulder blades off of which these machinations were sliding.

She lowered herself into the sofa they’d bought together so many years ago. Times like this, she did question herself. Where did I go wrong? Were we ever in love? Wrong for each other from the very start? What does he mean? We had loved each other. This sofa. That time he held me in his arms, passion and loyalty igniting us like thirsty kindling.

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As the tale often seems to go, he’d conveniently and quickly all but drained their joint bank account. That, while her lawyers’ fees were accumulating, so finances forced her to give up on the basic requests for financial support.  And now he was claiming “emotional devastation” that rendered him unable to work, so naturally he couldn’t possibly pay alimony or child support or help with a mortgage. But he swooped by when he could, Dad did, dipping in and out of the family’s world like a pelican, scooping the surface with his big beak, dripping and losing things as he flapped away through the air.

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To fill in for his absence, he posted Facebook images with him smiling broadly at the theater or on a seaside junket with his new single friends.

“Recovering” was the subtitle he wrote.

Recovering is what she was still fighting toward when, in the middle of the night, she got the call about our son Parker’s accident.  And now my sister-friend was at my side, comforting me.

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**

This woman could be a composite of many of my divorced sisters and brothers.  Many of them, hearts widened from private excavation, have stood silent vigil during our family’s great sorrow, praying and figuratively stroking my back with their long, swan-like gestures. We hardly need words, these friends and I. The magnetic pull of pain links our hearts, locks our eyes. We each know something about death.

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As I’ve observed the residual, cumulative, compounding effects of so many marriage-death stories, I think of something I read from Gerald Sittser.

For context, Sittser lost his wife of 20 years, his young daughter and his mother all in a random lone-road accident for which the other driver, who was drunk, escaped prosecution. (To pour a ladle of acid on that sizzling pile of shock: in that same head-on accident, that driver also killed his own pregnant wife). We’ll agree, I think, that Sittser can speak with authority about cataclysms:

My own loss was sudden and traumatic, as if an atomic blast went off, leaving the landscape of my life a wasteland. Likewise, my suffering was immediate and intense, and I plunged into it as if I had fallen over a cliff. Still, the consequences of the tragedy were clear. It was obvious what had happened and what I was up against. I could therefore quickly plot a course of action for my family and me. Within a few days of the accident I sat down with family and friends to discusss how I was going to face my grief, manage my home, raise my children. …

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My divorced friends face an entirely different kind of loss. They have lost relationships they never had but wanted, or had but gradually lost. Though they may feel relieved by the divorce, they still wish things had been different. They look back on lost years, on bitter conflicts and betrayal, on the death of a marriage. Anger, guilt, and regret well up when they remember a disappointing past that they will never be able to forget or escape. My break was clean; theirs was messy. I have been able to continue following a direction in life I set twenty years ago; they have had to change their direction. Again the question surfaces: It is possible to determine whose loss is worse?
-Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 31-32

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**

This year our family, like yours, received lots of holiday cards. Many of them have images of picture perfect families. I love these people (and cherish their pictures).  I’m grateful for them all.

The images that hold my stare the longest are the ones whose current private stories I know best. It’s that intimate knowledge that allows me to see through a glossy likeness to reality.  In some pictures there are gaping holes or percolating anxieties. I see them.  There are also hidden triumphs – survival stories, stories of super human change – that even the best photographer can’t simulate.  These pictures remind me to focus there in my chest for the low rumble of “sorrow that the eye can’t see.”

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Now here’s a card.  Handsome children I’ve known most their lives, and their beautiful mother I’ve known from all the previous holiday cards, the sister-friend I’ve known through her great grief and through mine.  The father? Long gone, although featured, I assume, on another airbrushed holiday card that’s gone elsewhere in the world. In this card in my hand, the mother’s unfussed good looks are arresting, enough to stop the eye mid-scan.  Enough to stop a train.

There’s something more than cosmetic beauty there, however, can you see it? It’s so much more than gleaming teeth, her best profile or well-lit features. In her eyes shines something the eye untrained for depth won’t see.  Part softness and sorrow, part hope and courage, there is something my eye zeros in on that keeps me there and makes me swell toward her in closeness.

There is – I think I can describe it now – there is a density of wisdom, a laser look.   But it’s even more than that. There is an intensity of light, the sort many might ask for or even try to superimpose or edit into their image at whatever the price. But the real thing, the real light, few would ever willingly pay for.  It’s that sharp-sweet serenity gained on a level far below shiny surfaces, hidden well beneath the thick lid of images: it is down here, I know it, beneath the comfortable pace of daily breath and at a place so interior only great time and effort will attain it, right there at the invisible and excruciating scraped-off surface of the soul’s bone.

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Who am I to judge another

When I walk imperfectly?

In the quiet heart is hidden

Sorrow that the eye can’t see.

Who am I to judge another?

Lord, I would follow thee.
__
Susan Evans McCloud

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.

**

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.

La Belle Suisse

To give you a short breather from Global Mom: A Memoir, and to remind myself of where I live, I stepped away from my keyboard for an hour this week. This meant peeling myself from my office with its writing chair and this laptop screen with all the words, words, words that have been my work from predawn to past midnight days and weeks on end. I needed to shake some blood into my limbs, breathe some air into my lungs, get some daylight on my face. So I took a short drive along our local jogging and biking paths.

Because I know these are beautiful paths, I also wanted to take this camera and my visiting parents (Hello, Donna and David.) Our boys Dalton and Luc were already far ahead of us on their bikes, since they know the area by now and have marked out their favorite routes.  They are quiet and postcard bucolic — not Dalton and Luc, but the routes — and I think the photos will give a better rendering of what we see when we drive, jog, bike or walk them than my words ever could. Consider this post your personal invitation to visit.


**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. 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.