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: Time Travel Kitchen

This post continues a week of daily posts on Global Mom’s recent trip to Warsaw and Krakow.

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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.

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Tomorrow’s post takes us by train south to Krakow, which, in spite of sub-zero temperatures, is a bustling, cheerful university town built around the largest open market square in Europe dating from the middle ages…

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Following that post will be two posts (if I manage to limit myself to just two) devoted exclusively to our visit to Oskar Schindler’s factory, and then our icy day spent at the concentration and extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

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I hope you’ll reserve time to delve thoughtfully into the final of these posts, and that you’ll share with others.

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U Kucharzy: a thoroughly authentic Polish dining experience dating from 1938. Not only has the interior of this restaurant remained nearly unchanged since before the Cold War, (check out the black and white floor tiles; they’ve never been replaced, like some members of the staff, I think), but the kitchen itself is entirely open so that you can dine inches from the massive wooden chopping block where the chefs prepare your food. I passed on the house speciality, beef tartare, and politely busied myself with the art of making the perfect vat of Polish dumplings.

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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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Global Mom Publishing Update

Global Mom Cover (large) 2

Global Mom, the book, and Global Mom, the Mom, have hit the road.

Wearing her newest (and final) cover, the book strode right out the door, stopping somewhere along the way to make sure she’s well-pressed. Next, she’ll go to the market to meet the public.

As of June 1st, Global Mom: A Memoir will be in major bookstores (like Barnes & Noble) as well as smaller independent stores, and if for some reason you can’t find her there, she’ll be available for order on Amazon. Between now and then, you (and your friends) can pre-order if you’d like. Just don’t be thrown when you go here to order and find Global Mom wearing last season’s cover:

GLOBAL MOM COVER

(We’ll get someone at Amazon to help us with a quick wardrobe change well before June 1st.)

Some readers have asked if Global Mom will be available digitally, and, if so, when.

Yes, she will. She will be available on all digital readers at the same time she’s released in hard copy.

Oh, and one more bit of nice news: There are plans in the works for me to record an audio version to be available on iTunes. Honestly, I’d rather do that than proofread anything, even the alphabet.  And by the way, if you’re interested in doing any sound effects on the recording, sign up right here in the comment thread.

In the meantime. . .

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Global Mom the Mom has also hit the road. For Poland.

Train from Warsaw to Krakow. Cold, wet, shivering. Fantastic.

Train from Warsaw to Krakow. Cold, wet, shivering. Fantastic.

Wearing every last layer of our warmest clothing, our family spent the last week between central (Warsaw) and southern (Krakow) Poland. We’d planned for some time on traveling there with our kids, and thought Easter week in a country that’s over 90% devoted Catholic would be a good time.

We chose well.

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You can visit Poland with me in just a couple of posts from now, when I take you through the Jewish ghettos of both cities. . .

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Important sites where history has left its scars and where award-winning movies have been filmed. I’ll take you, for instance, to Oskar Schindler’s factory. . .

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Schindler Jews

Schindler Jews

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. . .And to the buildings that were the backdrop for “The Pianist”.

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You’ll see beautiful architecture. . .

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Contrasts between WWII devastation, Nazi occupation and today’s renewal. . .

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And we’ll have stuffed cabbage leaves and fish soup in this funky open kitchen restaurant where I got to chat up the chef while he whipped up Polish dumplings.

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You’ll meet other native Poles as well, with whom we took video footage.

Jan, native Pole, with whom we shared our train compartment and talked for hours.

Jan, native Pole, with whom we shared our train compartment and talked for hours.

(Live video footage will be a new and regular feature of this blog. And yes, I’m learning this all on the fly.)

You’ll see street musicians. . .

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Street dancers. . .

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A handsome parade of costumed and picketing atheists in front of cathedrals over-spilling with worshipful Poles. . .

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A procession of hundreds late at night on Holy Friday down a main boulevard of Warsaw. And the massive wooden cross. . .

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A lesser known (but my favorite) Leonardo DaVinci portrait. . .

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An evening vigil of hundreds of Israeli youth at the huge monument to the Jewish Uprising. . .

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. . .Which you saw in this post, and towers over this square where I first met the last living survivor of the Uprising, the man you might remember as Antonini.

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And no one should miss a visit to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. The experience for our family was blood-chilling. The boys say they’ll always remember it as the coldest day of their lives.

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So please follow me* on my daily posts this week, beginning with excerpts from Global Mom, where we’ve just moved into the very heart of Paris. As you know from the last post, the move was slightly messy. It gets messier.

And then I’ll bring you along for the several posts and photos from Poland.

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(The irony running underneath this week wasn’t lost on me: one hour editing a piece on the “slightly messy” but ultimately cushy relocation to Paris. Then the next hour visiting the train lines that deported human cargo to their deaths.  You’re right.  The juxtaposition’s painful. And invaluable.)

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And at the end of it all, on Easter Sunday over all of northern Poland fell the white comforter of heavy snowfall.

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*Instead of “Follow Me,” I prefer, “Come along with me.” If you want to do that on this blog, just scroll down past “Leave a Comment”, and click “Follow This Blog Via Email”. It’s an honor having your company on the road.

Luc at the camera. Train back to Warsaw. Colder, wetter, still shivering. And fantastic.

Luc at the camera. Train from Krakow back to Warsaw. Colder, wetter, still shivering. And fantastic.

© 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.

Global Mom: Our Daughter With The French Name

From Global Mom: A Memoir

The following I wrote in my journal:

The hardest moment was in our bedroom tonight. We’d already told P by himself, which was a good move. We knew he’d be ecstatic. But C just finished doing Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man” and just last week we promised her a dog. Finally, the dog she’s waited a decade for. For D and L, we would just announce the choice when we’d make it, not discuss it, so we didn’t involve them at first.

Claire as Marian

Claire as Marian

Claire living her dream: horses

Claire living her dream: horses

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Piano teacher down the street

Piano teacher down the street

Big yellow American school bus also down the street...and a 6 minute drive to school

Big yellow American school bus also down the street…and a 6 minute drive to school

Free range living

Free range living

Did I mention a cottage and lots of open space. . .for a dog?

Did I mention a cottage and lots of open space. . .for a dog?

...Or for a little brother?

…Or for a little brother?

P and C were sitting on our sofa. We told them we had big news but wanted to discuss it. This isn’t final, kids, we said. Want to get your reactions. And when we told C, she immediately glazed over then her eyes welled up. P put his arm around her, and she just started crying, crying. “I don’t want to go back to that hard life. This is easy, good, perfect. I want to be here. I want to STAY HERE!” And she fell into P’s arms, bawling. I think I gave R an evil look, and I know I lipped to him, “This means no go.”

We kept trying to reassure her. We haven’t said yes to a thing, we said. We’ve just been asked if we could and we are free to say no, we said. We’ll never do something that makes all of us miserable and that Heavenly Father does not encourage us to do. We walked around and around the back yard, C between us, our arms wrapped around her shoulders, listening as she cried out all the reasons why this was all bad, all wrong. “All bad, all wrong,” she kept crying, stopping to catch her breath, to bend over and then shake herself upright. It broke my heart. I wanted to weep, too, but held it in. I was believing her.

I felt how selfish it would be to pluck them out of such bounty and ease, and I had just hung red geraniums on the wrap around porch, gorgeous! Why would we ever head to where things were, as Claire knew, much harder. The edges, harder. The expectations, harder. The language, harder. The traffic and school and rules and sky and air and everything, she said, HARDER.

Inseparable, these two

Inseparable, these two

What happened when Claire went alone into her room is something Randall and I didn’t ask or hope for. We sat, nauseated and sweaty, conflicted and brokenhearted, hands between knees, rocking back and forth on the edge of our bed. So what? we said to each other, if the company has an “acute” and “special” need? So what if that need is, as they assert, “tailor made” to be filled with Randall’s expertise? So what if this would only be “a couple of years” and then we could come right back to the home and the huge yard and the cul de sac on the hill and corporate headquarters where Randall, having done this, overseeing his function in the company’s largest subsidiary outside the U.S., would be “very well-positioned”, as he was told, to take on the job that his whole career had been grooming him for, the top and final level.

So what? I said.

So what? he said.

So what?

086

And Claire knocked on our door.

She wanted to talk. She came with news that became a turning point and a landmark to which our whole family would refer for years to come. She sat with us on the bed and told us she’d run while holding back tears to her girlfriend down the road. That friend, whose parents were in the middle of a horrible divorce, reassured and comforted Claire, and listened as her new friend cried. Claire had then come back home to kneel at her bed and pray. Not for an answer — to move or not to move, that was not the question — but simple comfort in this hurting moment. It was then that she felt warmth and heat wrap around her twelve-year-old shoulders and a voice (she felt it, she didn’t hear it), told her clearly that though this would be really hard at the beginning, over the long run it would be the best thing for the family.

Yes, she should, we should, move to Paris.

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Global Mom: Home Sweat Home

From Global Mom: A Memoir

As we parents were easing ourselves into the American Way, our children were doing what they’d done elsewhere: watching, observing, mimicking the locals to blend in, picking up the language (or accent), and figuring out the jumble of norms and nuances as they went along.

It went on like this for months and for all of us. Misreading cultural cues, not knowing language signals, not knowing T.V. lingo or T.V. personages or T.V. jokes, feeling alien, foreign, and making up for it in each our individual way.

The Yellow American School Bus

The Yellow American School Bus

Parker became a gangsta.

Dalton got frustrated with himself and too easily with others.

Claire buckled down and took the lead in the school musical.

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Randall buried himself at headquarters.

Luc gave me another round of debilitating back spasms.

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To be fair, it was not Luc alone but the house renovations that gave me the back spasms. You see, with everything pointing to the probability of our staying in this place forever, we decided to dig in deeply as if this was it. This is where we will belong.

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This meant buying a home, the first and the only one we’d ever owned – and who knew if we’d ever own one again? – which home became the project into which I invested my energies. That is, when I wasn’t sitting in conferences with teachers trying to help ease along whichever child was struggling with the adjustment that week. I invested myself into making this home just right for our family, invested myself the way I threw myself into just about everything else. Like a windtunnel full of pepper spray.

This meant a total overhaul from replaced floors to painted walls to added closets and woodwork. It meant a split rail fence around the entire property. A Hansel and Gretel cottage on the back of the property. A copper weather vane.

Can you see that weather vane?

Can you see that weather vane?

And Gretel and. . .?

And Gretel and. . .?

Okay. See the weather vane now?

Okay. See the weather vane now?

It also meant jack-hammering out the whole kitchen and putting in a new one. It was eight consecutive months of consuming work that spanned the dead of winter when we had to heat up pizza in a microwave rigged in the meat locker of a garage. And, yes, it was expensive work, work for which we’d been saving up parsimoniously for over nine years assuming that one day we would, with a mortgage and window boxes, pin ourselves permanently on a map somewhere.

We had vowed, Randall and I, to pass no judgments on this new life until these renovations had run their course. In the meantime, I found myself hunting in grocery store lines and around the edges of the local soccer pitch for a hint — any hint anywhere — of a foreign accent. Otherwise, we felt strangely out-of-place, unable to share a great part of ourselves with others.

One can expect to feel alien in a new or foreign country. But this? Feeling like an immigrant in what’s supposed to be one’s home country? At times, our new existence felt more foreign than anything. I knew less about being a soccer mom than I did about buying fresh produce from local vendors in an open market, less about American sports teams than about Norwegian arctic explorers, less about my native country than I did about ones that, in the end, no one really seemed to want to hear that much about.

This no-man’s-land feeling we tried to counteract by accepting volunteer positions in our church; Randall in the three-member leadership of our 450-member congregation, I in the regional presidency of the organization for all the teenaged girls. We connected with kind, enterprising, talented and patriotic fellow-Americans, whose friendship would accompany us into the years ahead.

But first came March. For ten days we’d been functioning in our new kitchen. I stood in the middle of it and took it all in: hammered copper farm sink and mustardy-sepia granite counter tops and our few select pieces of Provençal and Italian pottery. Norwegian touches. French touches. An antique Swiss cow bell holding back the traditional Scandinavian linen drapes. Modest but tasteful and most importantly, it bore our international imprint.

And the beautiful room made me ache. Relentlessly and acutely, I longed in my bones for France, for Europe in general, for my friends from the world over, for my children’s friends who understood them. What’s more, I was sniffing for the musty smell of a tiny corner market run by a Moroccan, for pungent cheeses sold by someone I knew by name in a shop that closed every day at noon for lunch and every Sunday. But beyond that, I ached for a place where we could be who we all had been individually and as a family, for that special roughness and refinement of a vibrantly textured international setting, and I missed — till-my-throat-constricted, missed — hearing and speaking French.

But that was all over and out. So I was trying to focus on all that was instead of what was not; the great ease and comfort that homogeneity offers, the undeniable traction that a societal system has when there are ample funds and loads of optimism. America’s abundant pluses, including her tremendous energy and enterprising people, the head-spinning convenience and collective casualness, they were not lost on me.

What is there not to love about this?

What is there not to love about this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

All that, in spite of my anxiety attack the first time I visited a place called Costco, or the first time I saw a $5.99 burger the size and weight of a French subcompact, which sight gave me heart palpitations and sent me running for cover. Otherwise, I was calmly, steadily fighting to come to terms.

So what do you do when you’re fighting to come to terms? You suit up in chocolate.

I was making chocolate brownies (the first brownies I’d ever made, I borrowed the recipe) for a school function, as I remember. And Randall called.

“Hon, can you meet me at the bottom of the hill? I’m almost home. Come alone.”

And I came alone. . .

And you can bet I came alone. . .

Global Mom: 9/11 in Paris

From Global Mom: A Memoir:
Luc we called the Luminous One. Or Lucky Luc, from a French comic strip. Or, most often, The Luc Factor because this luminous, funny boy was also a force of nature. And this factor didn’t make the several serial moves that followed in quick succession any easier.

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Sooner than we’d planned, the Versailles landlord returned to his home and we were out house-hunting again. We found a place being built in a village called Croissy-sur-Seine. The fact that the day the moving van pulled up to the house and the house was yet unfinished, (that is, if you consider a house with no glass in the spaces intended for windows to be “unfinished”), was the first concern.

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But in Versailles I’d weathered fire ants and bats and no parking for our two cars and four basement floods and the destruction of the Tempête de 1999, which uprooted much of Versailles and her magnificent gardens and landed a 200-year-old tree squat across the front seat of our next door neighbor’s car. Optimist that I am, I figured lack of windows just meant better ventilation. Glass half full. House half finished.

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But then the rains came. By that point, luckily, we did have windows, but we also had a basement and in France, as they say, when it rains . . . it floods your basement. I bailed for hours and hours. That was the first week of September. The next week the entire world changed.

Cidalia, my Portuguese girlfriend, was breathless and crying on the phone, “Faut regarder la télé, Mélissa. Faut regarder maintenant!” I had to turn on the T.V., she said. Had to turn it on right now.

There were images of smoke and imploding tall buildings I recognized instantly. This was New York. It was an earthquake or a detonation. But the French news said it was an attaque terroriste. Within twelve hours, all families associated with the American School of Paris were notified by the U.S. Embassy to go underground, to not visit any typical American haunts (certain restaurants, bars, shops, theaters), to not even step out on the streets if possible, and if that was unavoidable, then at least to not do anything that would advertise oneself as American. The children were brought home where they stayed in quasi house arrest. Our American missionary friends came and hid out at our home. We folded away any clothing that might look American; logos, brands, an embroidered eagle. We waited for word on the next move.

Within an hour, my French friends flooded my phone line asking if Randall was safe, if my whole family was safe, if I had any more information, that they were horrifié, terrifié, bouleversé, that they were praying for us, for the victims, for our country.

That this was un temps pour faire du deuil. A time to grieve.

A chapel full of both French and American church members gathered the next day visibly heavy-hearted and many in tears. There, I stood and sang the American national anthem, which was challenging enough. But when I reached, “and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” I was unable to make a sound.

The children did eventually return to school, but when they did, they passed by security guards with submachine guns and black fighter dogs in muzzles. The campus was in profound hyper security and palpable mourning.

Randall canceled his September 12th business trip to Islamabad. His work in the Middle East changed permanently, the events of September 11th leaving hot tremors across Paris and across our remaining lives.

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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.

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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.

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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.