Tag Archives: harmony

Remembering Kindness

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I didn’t think I’d make it through that Tuesday. There I was, sitting in my car as the Fremont Bridge was opening to let a yacht pass through. This was not an occurrence I had planned on, as I’d never known the bridge to open on a winter morning in all the years I’d taught at Seattle Pacific University. And it meant I’d be late to class.

I hate being late, so much that it rarely ever happened. Still, the few times that it had, I’d been able to keep my cool. This time, though, was different. I screamed and cursed at the bridge, pummeled my fists on the steering wheel, felt like crying. I’d become a discombobulated mess.

Perhaps this is understandable. I was teaching twelve credits that quarter and was enrolled in a nighttime master’s program, burning the candle at both ends. I’d spent the weekend prepping for my teaching, grading a massive pile of papers, reading and writing.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, my son called from college to say he’d been injured playing Frisbee: “No big deal, Mom, just a hernia. It happened a few days ago—sorry I didn’t call sooner—but the doc says the procedure is routine and he scheduled the surgery for tomorrow. Can you drive up? You’re off on Mondays, right?” Right. I just teach six hours on Tuesday, have a paper due on Wednesday, and was counting on Monday to work.

A son, though, is a son.

I will spare you a detailed description of the series of fiascos that was Monday, except to say that my son’s surgery was delayed for many hours (although it went fine), the surgery center had no cafeteria, and I drove home four hours through a blizzard in the middle of night. When the Fremont Bridge went up on Tuesday morning, I’d been foodless and sleepless for a day. I was dying for a pre-class snack and coffee, which the bridge had snatched from me.

I reached my classroom several minutes late. The students’ eyes were upon me as I pulled my book from my briefcase and stripped off my coat. My stomach was growling wildly and I felt unsteady on my feet, but I’d have to make due: the class was three hours long, our goal to discuss the whole of Night.

Night is the Holocaust memoir of Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who in the story is the adolescent Eliezer. Beautifully written, painful to read, replete with insight, Night was among my favorite books to teach.We dove right in, discussing each segment: Eliezer’s childhood in Transylvania, his initial deep belief in God, his family’s deportation to Auschwitz, the brutality the prisoners endured, Eliezer’s waning faith.

We came to a part of the story that was among the most moving to me. Eliezer, underfed and weak, is forced to work at a concentration camp warehouse overseen by a volatile Kapo. One day, for little reason, the Kapo jumps on Eliezer and proceeds to beat him. Eliezer crawls into a corner, bleeding and broken. Just then, Eliezer feels a cool hand wipe his brow. It belongs a forced labor deportee—an Aryan girl from France who has never spoken to him. She smiles at Eliezer, looks into his eyes, slips him some bread, and says some soothing words in German, as he doesn’t speak French.

At this point the story flashes forward. Many years later in Paris, Wiesel is reading on the Metro. He looks up and sees a woman with beautiful eyes and suddenly recognizes her—the French girl from the warehouse. The two go to a café and Wiesel confirms what he’s long suspected: the woman was really Jewish and had worked in the warehouse on forged papers. By speaking German to Eliezer, she’d risked her cover and her life.

I asked my students: “Why would Wiesel choose to break the flow of his story and jump to the Metro scene? We’re far into the book, and he’s never flashed forward before.” The students regarded me thoughtfully, then one suggested: “The scene was important to Wiesel. His book is about not forgetting the evil that people are capable of. Maybe he wanted to show that a simple kindness is a powerful thing that should also be remembered and oftentimes is.”

Yes. That’s why I loved that scene.

We moved through the remainder of the memoir. When class was over at noon, I dashed out the door. My next class would start in ten minutes, the room was far across campus, and I was more desperate than ever for a snack and coffee. I stopped in the Subway in the quad, but the line was a serpent, so I tried the Starbucks. The queue here too was long: a trio of students at the front, a couple of professors, a lone male student, and a quintet of female students right before me.

The barista wasn’t speedy and the orders were complex: a tall, nonfat latte with caramel drizzle; a grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soymilk; a triple, venti, no-foam, soy latte.

I looked at my watch as the barista processed the professors. Five minutes to go before class. At this rate I wouldn’t make it. I considered approaching the male student and offering to pay for his order as a way of bypassing the girls, but guilt struck immediately, so I gave up the idea. The boy ordered, received his drink.

I checked my watch. No choice: I’d have to bolt and starve.

Then I heard a voice. “Can I treat you to coffee?”

I turned. It was the first of the five girls before me, about to place her order.

“Excuse me?”

She smiled, looked into my eyes. “I’d like to buy you coffee.”

No, I’d not experienced a holocaust. No, the girl hadn’t risked her life. But the coffee that she offered helped me make it through the day, and I will remember her kindness for many years to come.

First published in Good Letters.

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The Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago)

IMG_1996_2My Uncle Jimmy died last fall at the age of ninety. Born in Sicily, he immigrated to New York when young and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was the husband of my aunt for sixty-one years, the frolicsome father of my two cousins, a regular part of my life until I married and moved away.

I can still see my uncle clearly as he was in January 1994. The way his brown eyes sparkled. The way his thick hair swept back from his forehead. The way he arm-wrestled my four-year-old son to laughter, easing tears caused by my father’s death.

That was the last time I saw my Uncle Jimmy. Almost twenty years ago.

On the day my Uncle Jimmy died, I didn’t even know that he was ill. He’d lived in Florida for two decades and I in Seattle for three. Through those years our correspondence was limited, consisting only of Christmas and Easter cards with a few scribbled pleasantries. Some years, even cards were lacking.

No, on the day my uncle died, I wasn’t at his bedside hugging him. Instead, I was in a Spanish cathedral embracing a very different Jimmy, not one of flesh and bones, but of gold-plate and jewels, the bust of Saint James, apostle of Jesus, whom Spaniards call Santiago.

According to Christian tradition, after Jesus’ resurrection, James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the Gospel. Upon returning to Jerusalem, he was beheaded, becoming the first Christian martyr. His acolytes carried his corpse to Palestine’s coast and placed it on an unpiloted boat that miraculously crossed the Mediterranean, passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, and landed on the shore of Spain among the fiord-like rías of Galicia.

In Galicia, the body was buried in a small shrine and the town of Santiago grew around it. By the twelfth century, an immense Romanesque cathedral had been built over James’ tomb and was attracting half a million pilgrims each year. People walked there from all over Europe, hundreds and hundreds of miles, crossing mountains, valleys, plains, and rivers, risking starvation, dehydration, injury, raids by bandits, death. For them, the pilgrimage was an enactment of the spiritual journey to God and the hardships were tests of faith.

Today, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually walk El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James. Heads swathed from blazing sun, blisters bursting in boots, backs bent under packs dangling emblematic scallop shells, they now come from all around the world and include believers and non-believers alike. During the last two weeks of my Uncle Jimmy’s life, my husband and I were two of them.

The Way is very much like leapfrog. Though the most travelled route is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, some pilgrims walk from farther points—Rome, Zagreb, Warsaw—others from spots nearer Santiago—Pamplona, Leon, Sarria.

All along The Way, pilgrims encounter each other, walk together for a distance, talk in spontaneous pidgins of English-Spanish-French-German-Italian. They lose each other at rest stops or to slow or quicken their pace, then rediscover each other at intervals of minutes, hours, days.  On the road, in restaurants, and in refugios, they bond through a cycle of challenges, triumphs, chow, chat.

We spied our first fellow peregrinos in an otherwise empty hotel breakfast room on the morning we set out from Leon. They were sitting at another table, a chic Spanish-speaking couple in brand new hiking gear. Finishing our pastries and coffees, the four of us stood, heaved our packs, smiled—neither my husband nor I speak Spanish—went outside and found the route. We walked neck in neck for hours. When the road split, we turned left and they turned right.

Two days later we recognized them in a restaurant in Rabanal, heard them speaking English to another couple, introduced ourselves. By the end of our conversation, we’d come to know them as Miguel and Liliana from Colombia. By Villafranca, we were dining with them, sharing insights on how to deal with blisters, manage backpacks, parent children, face midlife.

Likewise, in bits and pieces on The Way, we came to know Kyung Mi from Seoul, who clicked her walking sticks on gravel, offered me a parasol when the sun grew hot. And the group of students from the Catholic Newman Center at University of Washington, who early mornings shared the glow of headlamps and song-filled sunrise prayers. And Matteo from Genoa, who climbed a mountain pass with me, insisting I practice my Italian to distract me from my bleeding feet.

When pilgrims reach Santiago, they embrace in front of the cathedral. Strangers only weeks before, they now regard themselves as friends. Together they enter the cathedral and walk their last steps together up stairs that lead behind the altar. There they hug the gilded statue of Saint James, then descend to the Pilgrims’ Mass.

At Mass I gazed around me at hundreds of peregrinos, many now dear. People who had walked into my life, touched my heart, and would soon depart. People like so many others—my parents and grandparents, lost neighbors, colleagues, friends—who had once been marvelously present but had vanished due to distance, distractions, death.

People like my Uncle Jimmy.

I wanted to put my arms around them, all the people of my life. Those I’d known well and those I wished I’d known better. Those here and now. Those there and then. I wanted to hold them forever in a way that Facebook can’t.

Towards the end of the Pilgrim’s Mass, eight red-robed attendants launched the botafumeiro, a massive silver incense dispenser hung by a sturdy rope that swings an enormous arc across the church transept. At the first oscillation, the organ began to boom as every eye in the cathedral lifted to heaven with the fragrant smoke.

Then I understood. The Way doesn’t end in Santiago. And if we continue on it, loving those who cross our path, we can hope to be united with each other in God’s realm.

 

Photo by Vincent Samudovsky

For the Time Being

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I recently ran into a good friend who’d been battling depression for years. She looked radiant. She smiled and said a therapist had healed her; he’d taught her to live wholly in the present, enjoy every flower she sees, block all but the here and now.

I’m glad this philosophy works for my friend, but it wouldn’t be helpful to me. I too believe in cherishing the present—both in time and place—but I couldn’t live without remembering the past or the beauty of distant things.

While every flower I encounter brings me instant joy, the past has taught me which ones smell delicious and which harbor poisons to avoid. And when there aren’t flowers anywhere in sight, I recall that all I need to do to find them is wait for springtime or travel somewhere else.

This is likely why I so enjoyed For the Time Being, a book by Annie Dillard that contemplates time and space. I love the way it assembles information: stories from China and Israel, the natural history of sand, wisdom from Confucianism, Christianity and Kabbalism, medical facts about birth and death.

I love the way it poses statistical questions: Do you remember what you were doing on April 30, 1991, when typhoon waves drowned more than 138,000 people in Bangladesh? Do you know the dead outnumber the living in the ratio of twenty to one?

I love the way it travels through the ages—from the days of the Chinese Emperor Qin, who unified his country in 221 BCE, to the days of the Galilean Rabbi Isaac Luria, who reinterpreted the Zohar in the 1500s, to the days of the French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose archeological team discovered Peking Man in the 1920s, to the present day.

And I love the way it juxtaposes incongruent images—images of clouds, carnage, waves, plagues, trains, cemeteries, dwarves—so that readers can stir them all together, add their own connections, and marvel at the subtle, complex stew.

Dillard’s book shows so well that no matter our technologies or theories, we can’t control or comprehend our baffling world, or disentangle its disasters from its wonders. It also highlight that we humans, each unique and precious, are at once common and insignificant, and that this paradox unites us all.

This brings to mind a personal connection. While I believe in one God who made all that’s seen and hidden, I can’t believe that any single human doctrine can fully capture his utter mystery. All throughout the ages, and all around the world, his children have attempted to revere him in innumerable ways.

My tradition is Catholicism. The teachings, the liturgy, the organ, the incense, the light through stained glass: all of these move me to reverence. But you may be moved by something else. And the students I once taught at a yeshiva, by something different still.

But what should we make of the difference? A few years ago, I signed up for a yoga class—something I’d never done before. Following the instructor’s directions, I sat cross-legged on the floor, straightened up my spine, pressed my palms together, relaxed my face and closed my eyes.

The instructor began to chant in Sanskrit: Yogena chittasya padena vacham. The experienced students responded: Yogena chittasya padena vacham.

The instructor continued to chant: Malam sharirasya cha vaidyakena. Again the veterans responded: Malam sharirasya cha vaidyakena.

I couldn’t understand a single word. But despite this or likely because of it, I discerned something deeper than words could ever have disclosed. For sitting closed-eyed in that studio, I felt the presence of all of humankind—people calling, listening, responding, searching for each other and beyond.

And their dissonant separate voices—many raspy, off-key—combined oddly into harmony. It was a harmony that rose around me, ran through me, expanded within me.

It was a harmony distinct from all others, yet identical to all—the harmony of Gregorian chanting and Southern a cappella hymns, the harmony of Torah cantillations and Quranic tarteel.

It was all harmonies I’d ever heard and those I’d never imagined. It was all harmonies I’d yet to hear and those I never will.

In it, I sensed God.

I’ve remembered it often since then.

I remembered it when a Taliban assassin shot a Pakistani schoolgirl in the head, almost killing her, and when Hurricane Sandy swept the East Coast, killing dozens and leaving eight million without power.

I recalled it when a young gunman murdered twenty-six teachers and children in a Connecticut elementary school and when two brothers set off bombs at the Boston Marathon, wounding hundreds and leaving three dead.

I remembered it when Syrian government forces massacred five hundred civilians in a Damascus suburb and when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh killing and injuring three thousand workers.

Each time I’ve recalled that harmony, I’ve let it fuse with bygone melodies still resounding from the past and blend with distant songs I somehow knew were being sung in other places.

It’s always brought me peace, the peace I know is God.

So, for the time being, I’m determined to cherish that harmony, as I wish my good friend could. I hope to always keep it in my memory so that it can rise again to buoy me when the next typhoon waves come.