Healing memories

When I come back this evening my father is still in his wheelchair, huddled next to the radiator. His sea-green sweater drapes across his narrowed shoulders, he has the heater going at full blast. Florida in August. But he’s been cold for about two years regardless of the season, time of day, or the temperature outside. He’s blown out the heating and cooling system in his own home and has already broken one at the nursing home.

Huddled beside the heater in the darkening room, his dwindling figure is illumined by the fading light of day slipping in through the window before him and by the fluorescent light seeping in through the partially closed doorway behind. TV and the CD player are silent, and the room is quiet and still.

At first I think he’s dozing, but as I draw near I see he’s only closed his eyes for what in my childhood he called a “long blink.” He isn’t sleeping, and behind his closed eyes there’s a restlessness. A nurse said he sometimes cries out at night; memories of war, she said, pierced his dreams, after all these years. Memories he otherwise only alluded to and never spoke aloud. He always seemed self-contained and inaccessible.

I stand over him in the grayness between the two lights and watch him for a while. I’ve seen anguish, I think. The wordless lurching of one struggling to name the memories that would build a bridge to the outside world—even a loosely hanging rope bridge to those dearest to him, her.  Those memories of hurt, death, fear; where love was not absent but pummeled and grown guarded.

In heat not so different from that in my father’s nursing home room—but natural—in El Salvador, I recall, I’d waited quietly while villagers slowly joined a circle in a spot of shade beside fields of corn, just over the ridge, with the river below, in Usulután. They came one or two at a time, backs bowed under the weight of memories they shouldered, like overstuffed sacks of just-picked raw coffee, for more than 20 years.

Salvador García, who later that day would cradle his head in his hands during a rite of remembrance, was first to locate his voice. When he spoke, the birds all around hushed and made room for his unfamiliar words—about a massacre not far from where we sat. Until then it was unknown beyond the village—unknown, unrecorded, unacknowledged. Unspoken by the survivors, except to each other. They’d buried sons, daughters, spouses, siblings, friends; then they’d gone back to living, the invisible load of memories lying like a yoke across their shoulders.

Norbelina Blanco opened her mouth to speak, and a litany of the dead tumbled out before tears could swallowed her words again. Salvador, short and hulking, his western-style hat shading his eyes, got up then. He walked part-way around the circle to where Norbelina sat and wordlessly handed her a bottle of water. She took it, gulped the water down. He continued standing behind her, never touching her, never looking at her, still, wordless; waiting with her while she got hold of the ghosts. An act of kindness. The image of them remains with me to this day, a loosely hanging rope bridge to the world outside their pain.

In the gathering dusk in the room at the nursing home, I pull up a brown metal folding chair and sit next to my father. I turn the chair slightly so I can see him. His eyes are open now as he appears to me to loop together the figurative ropes of his own bridge; courage and kindness reach out from the abyss of his memories.

“Sometimes I just sit here and just say thank you, thank you,” he says, his thumb gesturing upward, Godward, as he understands it. “Thank you for all of it, thank you for everything.”

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Clouds

Today I saw a bank of white clouds in an otherwise deep blue summer sky. They started out as a small rolling band off to the left of my panorama, and gradually grew with time and distance. Illumined by the afternoon sun, they were playful, never threatening. I tried to see figures in their forms–a face, a finger pointing toward the way back; eventually I just let them be themselves. This was on I-87, while I was riding south, home, to New York City. Clouds, 2015

The clouds themselves seemed to change direction with every bend in road, bringing something new–undefined and breathtaking–to the ride. As they did, the sky that embraced them was so blue as to chase away all other blues. It was a hopeful sky, a sky of promise, a sky of tomorrow–alluring and persuasive.

There was just that one cloud finger pointing toward the way back, indicating the direction from which I’d come, that gave me pause, while other cars sped around mine.

The boy in the subway car

Today I saw a little boy, his face and hands pressed to the window of a subway car as it heaved itself out of the station at West 116th Street in New York City. I’d just gotten off the train and was walking north on the platform as it began to pull out south. Though this is a popular station–there are at least two universities and two seminaries within about four blocks of it–few people descended, and the train remained crowded. The little boy with his hands and face pressed to the glass didn’t seem to mind. He was hardly older than a toddler, and he was transfixed–by what? The dim lights, grimy white and blue tiles, empty chips bags and soda bottles on the floor of shared space? Or was he checking out the people as they rushed past him, one angling around another, insistent, pressing toward the stairs, up and out. His studious little face is clear as a photo in my mind, as he took in the scene in a moment while the train scraped forward. The dark environment, the realm of rushing adults, the newsstand momentarily bright and oasis-like, the man encased in possessions asleep on what looked like a brittle throne, carved and crafted. The boy seemed to reserve judgment as his dark eyes examined the scene slipping slowly away. I wondered: Would he one day become one of those rushing students, teachers, office workers, wait staff, newsstand attendants, lost and aimless humans encased in stuff? And if he did venture into this world, what would he offer it? How would he change it or would he charge ahead, as so many of us on the platform today, shielded by blinders of narrow purpose? Would he be aware of the other lives angling past his? As a young boy, face and hands pressed to the glass of a subway train just pulling out of a station, he seemed to be taking stock.

No desert in Baltimore

There is no desert in Baltimore, after two days of rioting. No peace. The source of the ground-churning is the death in police custody of a young man named Freddie Gray. News reports continue to refer to his death as a “mystery,” but there is nothing mysterious about a man whose spine is broken and no care given him while in the custody of the authorities, and who, as a result, dies. Civil government in Baltimore needs to come clean, name what happened to Freddie Gray, and begin prosecution of those responsible for his death.

Watching on the TV the scenes of violence and fire, I had mixed emotions. Sympathy with those who have grown frustrated with case after case, in city after city, of police brutality toward young black men. The objects of that violence were not necessarily passive and un-provoking, but not one deserved to die in their confrontations. It is hard to imagine, for one not the object of that prejudice, just how frustrating and even frightening this long series of events has been and is.

What is imaginable is how this violent behavior can escalate and threaten people who are close to me. And therein arose my other emotions: fear and retribution. It is also frightening to me that it is this combined reaction that churns in my core as a response to violence. I fear for my sister’s family, who live around Baltimore and work in the city, and I imagine myself going to their rescue.

This is the never-ending cycle of violence. Violent action—forgetting or delaying justice—more violent action. There can be no peace until the injustice is named and steps taken to address it. Until that happens, the threat of violence will grow wider and wider. Naming and addressing injustice is a more arduous response than simply picking up a stone or a gun, but the harder way, only, can offer hope of lasting peace.

Reading The Buried Giant

Actually, for the second time. It’s worth it.

#TheBuriedGiant is Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book. It takes place in a mythical time after the death of King Arthur. Its principal protagonists are an elderly couple of Britain, a Saxon warrior (raised among Britons) named Wistan, an elderly knight (Sir Gawain) of King Arthur’s Round Table, a young Saxon boy (Edwin) who becomes a warrior-in-training, and several boatmen, who ferry persons to their final resting place, an island that is in view of the land. Most of the story is told by an omniscient third-person (who I believe is the boatman we meet in first-person at the end of the story). Sir Gawain breaks into first-person narration twice in the story.

It is a quest story–or quests. The elderly couple are on a quest to find the grown son they no longer recall, and the warrior and Sir Gawain are on separate–and opposing–quests to the she-dragon Querig. Edwin is driven to locate his disappeared mother. All of them–Britons and Saxons–are on a quest to either remember or forget the terrible events, many years past now, of violent and traitorous conflict between the Britons and the Saxons.

The book is narrated in a gentle voice, and the characters, when not involved in combat (individual or collective) are gentle and courteous with each other. The elderly man of the couple, Axl, refers to his wife only as “princess” when speaking to her directly. It is a strange language for us world-weary people of the 21st century, who have grown callous in our relationships with friends, and, too often, narcissistic, xenophobic, and harsh in when we meet strangers on the way. I was blessed to hear #KazuoIshiguro read from this book at #92Y, and the gentle tone of voice he used as he read has remained with me as I read for myself.

This story is about the price of peace (individual and collective), about forgiving and forgetting or remembering and forgiving as two distinct paths forward after conflict (individual or collective). The former, the story seems to say, is a quick fix, but carries no guarantees; the latter is hard, painful, and uncertain, but, once humbly and sincerely embarked upon, more lasting.

That is the way of the elderly couple, in the end. Actually, we don’t know quite how the story ends, but that’s not the detail that matters.

I loved this book for its willingness to struggle with these questions. It’s also a good story..

Taking the long view

Today is Palm Sunday. The gospel reading is the long, sometimes interactive reading from the Gospel of Mark. It begins in Bethany, where a woman is anointing Jesus with expensive oil before he leaves for Jerusalem and his death. The woman’s action does not meet with favor by the onlookers, “and they scolded her.” But she does not stop.

This phrase, “and they scolded her,” resonated with me as I have been thinking, throughout this week, about Monsenor Oscar Romero. Romero, who was murdered for his faithful living 35 years ago on March 24, often was “scolded,” ridiculed, humiliated and threatened. But his heart was set on the kingdom of God and he was deeply aware of his own small part in it. This strengthened his conviction and kept him from getting lost or stuck in momentary personal attacks or adversity. The kingdom of God is united by love, and this was his driving force.

There is a film called “Monsenor: The last journey of Oscar Romero,” and I watched it this weekend. It is worth looking at in Lent, as it is a telling example of how Monsenor kept his eyes on that long view—-kept  his “eyes on the prize,” as it says elsewhere in scripture and was pronounced by another visionary, Martin Luther King Jr.

It seems so hard to do. Yet, with prayer and mindfulness, it is possible to live as the woman in Mark’s gospel, as Romero, as King—-not getting sidetracked by scoldings, insults and setbacks but, rather, picking up that cross every day anew and shouldering it through the unfolding kingdom of God. This is so also when one is not the object of attack but is, perhaps, facing momentary obstacles or anxieties, or is surrounded by noise and commotion, or is uncertain how to resolve a personal or social problem.

A poem attributed to Romero, but actually written by a bishop named Ken Untener, expresses this. It is called “A future not our own” and says in part:

“It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision……

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise……”