I began writing these words on Easter Sunday, as Christians celebrated the triumphant arc of their spiritual year, when Christ rises from death.
But resurrection itself belongs to everyone, regardless of belief, or non-belief.
Here in much of America, Easter-time coincides with the year's resurrection. The alarm clock set by the spin and wobble of this particular planet on which we reside goes off; the natural world wakes again from winter's deep sleep. In Vermont
and points north, that sleep is so very quiet, cold and monochromatic it might be mistaken for death; hold a mirror to earth here in January, and if you looked quickly and casually, you would not see see a trace of vapor. It's there, of course; just not easily seen. Left and above: the relevant cover of one of my mother's books for children, The Bunny Who Found Easter, most recently illustrated with great charm by Helen Craig (another illustration, right).
The change, here, is dramatic. The other day, lying in bed to take a nap in the upstairs bedroom, I took off my reading glasses, put down my book, glanced out the window at the tree-tops and literally started, did a double-take: there, among the gray-brown tree branches and somber black-greens of the conifers, at which I'd been gazing for months, was a sudden swath of riotously bright pale green; the deciduous trees abruptly beginning to leaf out.
To go from the one to
the other so swiftly is an annual astonishment, in Cole Porter 's words, "the urge to merge with the splurge of spring."
Perhaps it's rabbits' urge to merge, the fecundity rather than their cuteness, which has linked them, in human eyes, with this time of year. In the book above (another of Craig's illustrations, right), a bunny seeking company is advised to find Easter. This, he thinks, is a place, located (logically) in the east. The book follows the bunny's brave, persistent, journey through the seasons as he seeks Easter and a mate. You can see from the picture that his search is a lonely one.
The post previous to this one was written in deep winter, a Part One left dangling without a Part Two until now. A sheepish confession (especially apropos since Part One included a sheep — Go back and look if you don't believe me): this is, I think, the third Part One I've left orphaned. Why have my well-intended
Part Ones sometimes lacked their promised Part Twos? It's not "Shit happens," that supremely who-cares verbal shrug. It's the opposite.
It's: everything happens, and keeps on happening. Daily life is a confoundingly overflowing cornucopia. Events, ideas, insights reproduce more rapidly than rabbits. Not a day goes by when I don't think "Ooooo – that would be good for the blog." But as all writers and would-be writers know, thinking, writing in one's head, is quick and easy. But actually writing, on paper or digitally, is time-consuming and hard.
so, why Part Two: a mere 3 1/2 months later?
But. This particular Part Two compels my return. For two reasons.
First, because the gift the Rare Hare offered me (yes, synchronistically, Part One had not only a sheep but a rabbit, or at least a half-rabbit, half-antelope, the mythological jackalope) was made fully clear only by subsequent events. It was, it turned out, not exactly a prophetic dream, but something akin. A psychological booster shot, revving up an immunity I already had but would need, soon, to revisit, as daily life's cornucopia grew particularly, challengingly difficult.
And second, not delivering on Part Two was a tease, a broken promise, poor writing. All these acts I do my best not to commit, but maybe especially the last.Until I write Part Two, I'm committing the Chekovian sin: In Part One, I showed you, dear reader, a metaphorical gun on the wall — in fact, a small armory — but, not one of them has yet gone off.
Having told you about the dream (and mentioned that besides Boundin' it referenced the Holocaust, David Letterman, a New Yorker article — that's the cover, there … the December 21-28, 2009, issue, oh the shame! — called Green Giant, about where the U.S. and China stand, respectively, on developing green technologies, and a transcendent moonlight walk with David — these would be the firearms) in Part One, I need to tell you the dream itself.
And why those references came up.
So now I'm gonna.
- Chou-Chou (described in previous post as "the
dear friend who traveled with me through the terrible period following
Ned's death and with whom I traveled through some terrible things in
- David Letterman. talk-show host.
- An imaginary man, Letterman's guest: an older, erudite Eastern European Jew.
The time: present
The place: a large bedroom at Chou-Chou's house (though not her waking-life real house). The king size bed has a golden-yellow bedspread and is set against a wall, with pillows and bolsters so that one can easily watch the big-screen tv that sits on a bureau across from the foot of it.
We open: Chou-Chou and Crescent are sitting on the bed, sprawled on the bolsters, watching TV.
Ah, beloved Chou-Chou. (That's me and Chou, a few years back, at a riotously fun dinner at her house in Eureka Springs in 2002.) A certain ex-boyfriend and his mother may have been cropped out of the picture — this sometimes happens, in pictures as in life. But! What I remember about that evening is Chou and I laughing our heads off, some kind of ridiculous back-and-forth jive between us in pseudo-therapy talk — We began with the standards — 'What I hear you saying is that – ' 'Un-hunh, and what does that mean to you?' — and quickly went way, way off the rails. I also recall Chou's excellent spinach enchiladas, and Spanish rice. I believe I brought the salad — I do a slightly sweet cilantro-lime vinaigrette, of which she is fond, excellent on mesclun and avocado with a little sectioned orange and some scallion. I probably also brought dessert. Most likely flan. )
But, David Letterman? If
you know me personally — I don't own a television, rarely
watch TV even in hotel rooms, and when I do, never, ever,
late night talk shows— you are no doubt having a WTF moment. You are saying "David Letterman? Of all people!" As I did, when I woke from and thought about the dream. If my unconscious was going to pick "talk show host to participate in meaningful message delivery," wouldn't, say, Oprah have been a better choice? Yes. (After all, she interviewed Elie Wiesel: relevant, as you'll see).
But, nope. My subconscious picked David Letterman.
My subconscious also invented the fourth character. It did not see fit to give him a name, which has hindered and irritated me during the writing of this post; dialogue would've been much easier had he been more than "he" or "the gentleman." But, I did not succumb to the temptation to make one up for him: I felt funny saying "Let's just call him ________." For who am I to argue with the mind's underground foundations?
This man, then, unnamed, was both old and Old World, and elegant. He spoke English impeccably but with a faint Eastern European or Russian inflection. He exuded warmth, charm, intelligence, sophistication. His slightly old-fashioned dark suit fit him as well as he seemed to fit his own being — wholly comfortably.
Okay. I just went online to search for someone who looked like him. I did this by Googling images with various
phrases — elegant older man, elegant older Jewish man, older Russian, Russian Jewish actor, handsome older actor Russian — to see if I could find someone who resembled what my unconscious had conjured up. (Of this process, well, "These are the days of miracle and wonder," as a Paul
Simon line has it ). And there, after about fifteen minutes, he was, the gentleman on the left. (In real life, this man was Constantin Stanislavski, 1863-1938, considered the father of modern acting technique, which became known in America as Method Acting.
In some ways that's wholly beside the point here; I'm merely using his
image as stand-in. But, after reading a bit about him, I feel that Stanislavski
would be unreasonably pleased if he knew he were playing a role even after
And why was he being interviewed by Letterman? Because, in my dream, he was 90-something, the world's foremost voice-over artist, and a Holocaust survivor.
And therein lies the hinge-point of the dream.
a simple plot, not a lot of what you'd call action, and yet…
In summation, the
dream was simple: Chou-Chou and I, staying put, our backs against the headboard, watching Letterman interview the invented character who looks like Stanislavski. There's no direct dialogue between us, though we exchange a lot of looks as we watch TV and the events of the dream unfold.
In the dream, David Letterman is asking my guy, the Stanislavski-lookalike, about one of his recent voice-over projects: Boundin'.
"But, unlike in your films, you speak with a Russian accent, " says Letterman.
"True," says my man, with a Russian accent. He's smiling.
"And as we're talking here, you sound a little, forgive me, old," says Letterman.
"Also true," he says. Still smiling, he gives a little what-can-you-do shrug.
"Well," says Letterman, "Of course, you are 99."
The studio audience applauds, stamps, cheers, whistles its approval.
"Yet you narrated that film in the voice of a wise, all-American cowboy, sort of a mellow cowboy, middle-aged. Can we see a clip of the film, please?"
After a bit of Boundin' is shown, Letterman says, "How did you do that?"
There is some discussion between the two of them about voice technique, learning and unlearning accented speech, coaching, travel to Wyoming. How my man lived on a ranch for a few weeks, and eavesdropped on small-town conversations at small-town Western coffee shops.
"Yes, " says my character. He is not smiling now. Somber, serious, he sits erect, his posture dignified. "Auschwitz. Not many lived." (Left, the sign at the main gate to Auschwitz, its famously perverted motto which translates as: "Work Makes One Free." Of course, the only
freedom work at the camp brought to its inmates — those who were not gassed
the same day the cattle cars on which they were transported to the camps arrived, which was the majority — was death. To which most of those who survived "the selection" were
literally worked.)Back to the dream, from this real-life nightmare.
My waking self does not remember the specific dialogue which followed. Letterman asks him about the years in the camp, how he survived… The dream Chou and I, seated on the bed, exchange looks every now and then, shaking our heads, believing but not believing, the common reaction, one I have to this day when I try to truly wrap my mind around the Holocaust, its pure, systemic day-after-day evil. The word itself is from the Greek word "holokauston" , or "sacrifice by
fire" , meaning the Nazi's persecution and planned slaughter of people who were Jewish (other groups of 'different' people were also consigned to flame, among them gypsies, the disabled, and homosexuals). How was it possible? How could it have happened?
The Dutch poet and playwright, Abel Herzberg (right, above), who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and lived to write about it, has said, "There
were not six million Jews murdered; there was one murder, six million
times." This distinction attempts to individualize the losses, to restore humanity to people systematically dehumanized. A noble attempt. but impossible still. Either way: how can one possibly take in the outrage, the horror, the depth, the scope of the murdering?
As Oprah said, in her introduction to the interview with Wiesel, pictured left: "The story—and especially that number, six million —numbs us: A
Jew hater named Adolf Hitler rises to power in Germany, the world goes
to war in 1939, and when the showdown is over six years later, the
tyrant has slaughtered six million Jews. Inconceivable."
Evil, in my mind, is synonymous with two things: slavery, and (warning: this next link is graphic and horrific; close-up images of Nazi genocide) the Holocaust. Every perversion of good, every oppression, from the sexual exploitation of women and children, to ecocide (intended or otherwise), racism — every serious lie we tell ourselves or others, seems to me encapsulated and exemplified by these two things. Both express the consequences when human beings have absolute power over powerless beings (human and otherwise), with whom they lack even the slightest empathy.
Both slavery and the Holocaust systematized sociopathology, the deeply shadowed crevasses of the human heart, which we shiver to examine. Yet if we fail to look down into them, we surely imperil ourselves more so. A blind eye to atrocity, simply because it is atrocious, upsetting, surely damns us further.
Yet the man my unconscious created survived this, as only a small percentage of those who went through those gates of hell did (including Elie Wiesel, pictured again below, older, this time with Oprah, at Auschwitz in 2006; photo,). My dream man not only survived. Eventually, he thrived.
what do we do with it?
In a sense, this question, which I ask myself all the time, was the one the dream put to me, and answered.
As symbol and reality, the Holocaust and slavery (the one a historical event; the second, an ongoing institution that's been seemingly part of humankind's shadow self for almost as long as there have been humans) embody what is most unacceptable and impossible to understand about life: that such things can, did, and do happen. That I, or you, or Oprah, may say "unacceptable" is powerfully (or perhaps powerlessly), irrelevant. Evil — "the banality of evil," as the German political theorist Hannah Arendt famously said at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi said to be "the architect of the Holocaust," — appears intractable, as much part of life as good. (That's Arendt's image, as it appeared on a German postage stamp, issued in 1988 as part of a "Women in German History" series.)
And so, what do we do with this?
This being evil's existence, whether or not we "accept" it. (Not what do we do 'about' it; obviously, good and evil and those who embody each, are in eternal struggle. What we do 'about' evil, assuming we are on the side of the good, is struggle against it; simple, if rarely easy).
But what do we do with it, in thought and feeling? (Left, a detail of the two as archetypes in struggle, in Satan Before the
Lord by 18th-century Italian artist Corrado Giaquinto.)
And is there any point to even ask "what do we do with this?"
I think so.
Because one cannot embrace life while editing out the evil that takes place in it, any more than one can excise life's inherent sorrows. (Sorrow — even when unpolluted by evil intent — also, of course, inheres in life. Beloved innocents die in accidents, in earthquakes, of disease, by murder — each a sorrow of vastly different shading, especially to the survivors, but all sorrowful nonetheless).
The gristle and gravy, the wonder of the Milky Way and of the tornado that lifts one righteous house clear off the ground, killing five, but leaves the home of the child molester next door, untouched, its residents safe. The vernal wild flowers that come up, unbidden and triumphant, each year (like the trillium David photographed last spring, which is now beginning, again, to come up); the 30,000 species that quietly go extinct each year. Bunnies; barbed wire. Those who are quenched and sated; those, in the same world, who are parched and hungry. Love and hate, gifts and losses, an incomprehensible system by which plenty or its absence is meted out.It's what the Vedas, the Hindu holy books, call "the riot of opposites." Even in Auschwitz, there must have been spring days when the air was warm and fresh and ambrosial, the grass and trees growing green again even as the smoke rose from the crematoria.
Hope and despair, good and evil, cheek by jowl.
Everything happens, keeps on happening.
Life is large enough to contain all this, because it has to be. It is we who are too small.
But I think the act of asking what we do with contradictory realities too large for us, questions which can never be answered — does, itself, enlarge us.
And I also believe, of course, that nothing is wasted on the writer.
art & atrocity
I once heard an extraordinary lecture called "Writing Atrocity", given in 2000, during the summer session at the University of Iowa's non-degree writing program. It was given by Janusz Bardach, the then-elderly author of a memoir called Man is Wolf to Man, about his horrific internment in the Gulag, the Russian equivalent of the concentration camps (he died in 2000, at age 83). Bardach, who had gone on to have a distinguished career in the U.S. as a reconstructive surgeon and a professor, radiated sweetness, unpretentious brilliance, and an Old World gentlemanly quality, much like the man in my dream.
He spoke, that day, of the inherent conundrum of writing like his: to tell one's story, knowing that any telling will be inadequate, is to risk in some way diminishing it. Or, worse yet, to put it up for the prurient interest of horror's voyeurs and sightseers. But to not write about it; isn't that worse? Doesn't keeping silent collude with the evil-doers, with evil itself? In the end, he seemed to feel, it was the responsibility of the survivor, if he or she had any call to the literary, to try to tell his or her story: for personal psychological integration, yes, but even more so because then a testament was left to the world. (I consider Man is Wolf to Man to be just such a testament.)
And if this testament was accurate enough, clear, truthful, compelling, there was the chance that readers might do whatever they could to prevent it coming again, in another form, in their own lives. (I am thinking about this currently, as I listen to the audio-book The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver's latest; as she describes the "howlers", who grow, in the lifetime of the book's protagonist, to be the House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, with its the reverberations backwards – to the Salem witch trials, and forwards, to our own time, when the so-called Tea-Baggers appropriate words like 'freedom' and 'rights' as excuses for the fomenting of violence, racism, name-calling, and that lack of seeing fellow human beings as just that, which, to me, begins the long downward slide. Though fiction, this novel also has the ring of personal testament and powerful warning.)
It took Wiesel a decade to find the words for his testament. But he did, eventually, in Night, called by the New York Times "a slim volume of terrifying power." It was the fi
rst volume of a trilogy. the other two books being Dawn and Day. The writer, in life and in writing, made the journey from unspeakable darkness to light.
Imagine, if you can (knowing you cannot, nor can any of us who did not experience such places), Wiesel's unimaginable suffering. Now imagine if he had not been able to make use of it through writing; how much greater would that suffering have been.
Its horror would have then been not only absolute but unadulterated. The Holocaust can never be justified or explained, nor can art mitigate it. But meaning can be wrung from it. This is what Wiesel did, and in literature as in life, moved from darkness to light. Night has now been read by millions of people. The Holocaust was not wasted on Elie Wiesel.
But, back to the dream
Eventually Letterman gets to how, after all his guest has survived, he can still believe in resiliency, the 'bound and
rebound' theme of the film.
My man says that his
experiences confirmed it. That while he never would have made it out of the camp without
hope, will, and luck, even more than these things it was ultimately resiliency that saved him.
For, he says, in his accented speech, that while to survive the camps physically was essential, it "was only a partial saving." The far-longer work was to live a life of meaning, to uncripple oneself from what had been experienced. To not just live but to make a a life: that he says, was the
true and final victory.
That, he says to Letterman, "is the most fundamental way war is won, and
imprisonment ended — not once, but every day. And not just that war I was in, either, or Auschwitz; I am talking about all prisons, all wars. You love, you live and use life fully, despite everything. That is when you win. That is the victory. When you love anyway.
Then he pauses. Hesitates. His face changes, draws in as if in sudden physical pain. And as begins to topple from his chair on the studio
set (Chou and I watch, riveted). And then they cut to a commercial.
Chou and I look at each other questioningly, then back to the TV, leaning forward.
the show returns, instead of Letterman and his
guests, there are written
words on the screen, being typed as we see them, scrolling down. The words are in white against a dark brown background… with deepest regret … cardiac arrest… doctors… has just been pronounced dead… last words, spoken: 'when you love anyway'... world grieves passing of a great man..."
Chou and I exchange a long, long glance, wide-eyed. She clicks off the remote. We have nothing to say. We know we have just witnessed an extraordinary occurrence. (And, fortunate us: in waking life we have decades of friendship together, in which we have experienced, side by side, not only each others griefs, but vast and extraordinary joys. Just look at us, right, in 1983, in our bright, bright saris, in India, young and radiant).
So when, in the dream, Chou and I witness the voice-over man's death, we know that even the strange and public manner in which he died was his final gift to the world.
A world towards which, given his experiences, he had no call to be generous. Yet, he won. He loved. He loved anyway. It was death, but it was a good death.
And that, dear reader, was the dream.
To deliver — or not — on what's left on Part One's promises
I mentioned, in Part One, the walk I took with David around 11:00 p.m., on the last
night of 2009. That night was lit up: It was not just a full moon night but a blue moon, and the ground so blanketed in snow it reflected the moonlight. All was illuminated, bright enough that we did not need flashlights, so bright, in fact, that David was able to take pictures without a flash. I posted some of them on Part 1. Here are a few more.
Below, I'm standing on the iced-over pond. I'm bundled up from head to to toe. I said to David, "Please, could you take one of me waving, for the blog?" He did.
It's amazing how much ambient light there is, sometimes, even at night.
Ask Wiesel, or Bardach, or the dear man being interviewed by Letterman in my dream.
It is very silent on a windless winter night in Vermont; everything except the sound of one's footsteps is frozen, and still. No birds, no frogs or peepers, nothing to rustle or splash.The snow insulates the ground; one's hat and scarves or balaclava insulate one's ears.
A fictional telling, for children, of winter's quietude, from Charlotte's The Bunny Who Found Easter:
One day it began to snow. Soft white flakes drifted down from the sky, and the air was sharp and cold and still. When he hopped through the white drifts he left little dark footprints in the snow. But no matter which way he hopped, his footprints never crossed other bunny footprints. The little bunny was alone in a world without rabbits.
So when, on that full moon night walk at the end of last year, I heard a sound, I started slightly (much as I did recently when, a few months later, that pale green stroke of spring caught my eye).
But then I almost immediately recognized what I was hearing — the rush of water, where the stream which feeds the pond travels under the road and down the hill.
Though the pond was frozen solid on the surface, at one spot, near the dock, it remained liquid, a dark uneven half-circle in the white. This is the location of the overflow for water held in the pond; where it sluices down, beneath the road and out the other side, in a small waterfall . From there, it heads towards the foot of the hill. A busy, noisy year-round brook, it's narrowed by ice in the winter, but is of sufficient force and flow as to remain mostly unfrozen. Its rush was what I heard.