What Is Brave

When we hear the word brave the first thing that comes to mind is a very traditional picture. I think we all think of soldiers, of police, of first responders. And they are indeed brave, most of them, most of the time.

And then we perhaps think of those amazing civilians that we read about that step up in the face of danger. The teachers that sacrifice themselves for students in an active shooter situation. Folks that jump in to save someone drowning, in or out of a sinking car. Just watch the news for the rare good story.

These days we think of the medical people who continue to go to work despite the widespread nature of the COVID 19 virus. They put themselves at risk and often are separated from their families. And the teachers, again, who have adjusted as best they can and try to keep our children on track through virtual means.

There is a much quieter version of brave that we often don’t think of and don’t acknowledge. There is the single mom with three children struggling to make ends meet. There is the student that stands up for a bullied friend. There is a group of teens that go to Haiti to help rebuild. There are doctors that provide low cost or free healthcare to the under served. There are the volunteers in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. There are folks that bring meals to seniors, shut ins, who can’t get out for food.  And there are so many others.

I found it odd that when I made the decision to become single at sixty three a vast number of people told me how brave I was. As if growing old alone is an act of courage. I didn’t feel it that way. It was just necessary. And being single is not a state of being that should invoke pity. Doing what is right for your life and your spirit shouldn’t be an act of bravery but in today’s world where complacency and mediocrity is the norm, I suppose it can seem that way.

These days there are some renewed kinds of brave. Young people facing anonymous armed forces, marching to be heard. People banning the confederate flag even where it has been revered. While it is only leveling the field in a way, it still takes brave. In the same way that it took brave for the first professional athletes to come out as gay, it was only leveling but it took brave. These days, it feels brave to go to the grocery store. A small thing and you aren’t likely to be tear gassed. But it feels like brave.

The world is full of brave if you just look around. There are those smallest acts of kindness and bravery, and there are the big things where hope to change the world lives. Be brave, start small and work up to it. And one day it will be the norm and won’t seem quite so extraordinary.

Let the memory and spirit of John Lewis be an inspiration to bravery, march on.

The Things They Carried

So. Pandemic reading. I have been familiar with Mr. O’Brien’s writing for decades but somehow this one escaped me. It is not long, but it is a not a read straight through book. It is powerful, moving, scary, heartbreaking. It took me some time to get all the way through.

This book is a series of stories with thematic and character continuity throughout. It is autobiographical but doesn’t read as autobiography in every way, it reads as story populated by the author and the other characters. That those characters may well have been real in the author’s life doesn’t really enter into the reader’s consciousness until the author adds a personal narrative. This happens with some regularity throughout the stories but doesn’t negate their power as story. The author actually talks, in the story, about the power of story.

Although this is overall an amazing work, what held me most is the author’s grasp of imagery. His descriptive passages are compelling, almost mesmerizing whether he is describing something so awful that it is unimaginable or something beautiful.

“He would’ve explained how it was still raining, and how the clouds were pasted to the field, and how the mortar rounds seemed to come right out of the clouds. Everything was black and wet. The field just exploded. Rain and slop and shrapnel, nowhere to run, and all they could do was worm down into the slime and cover up and wait.”

Maybe this isn’t the best example but it goes on to describe what it is like to sink into a field of shit completely so I thought I would stop there. His images are often of the horrors of war. In another gruesome passage he describes working in a pig slaughterhouse in meticulous detail. Some of the best are when he describes feelings, what is happening to the person, or himself, internally. In one particularly moving passage he describes the imagined life and feelings of a young Vietnamese man who has been killed and is lying in the path in front of them.

“He had no stomach for violence. He loved mathematics. His eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, and at school the boys sometimes teased him about how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers, and on the playground they mimicked a woman’s walk and made fun of his smooth skin and his love for mathematics.”

Reading this, you forget that he is looking at a destroyed corpse in the path, imagining the life of the dead man. This is all part of the internal life of the author/narrator/character described objectively but felt subjectively.

I find it hard to describe here the power of Mr. O’Brien’s writing. Some of it has to do with the subject matter, the Vietnam war. Much of it has to do with the intensity of emotion with which he writes. A very great deal of it has to do with his control over his writing and imagery. Every word is careful and has purpose and intention. Reading this little book is a master class in writing.

Read it.

Food is Love

A chore long overdue, sorting through my collection of recipes and organizing them in some useful way. A social isolation chore but in the end, a great thing. For me there is  joy in discovering forgotten recipes, things I saved that I thought I might try, things I wrote notes on because they were particularly good or needed adjustment. I can read cookbooks for hours so this is not surprising. What was surprising was just how many good and interesting recipes I have collected over the years.

Many of the recipes are things I made with my father, my step mom and, surprisingly, my mother. Surprising because my mother has long claimed she can’t cook; I think she just doesn’t like it. Other recipes are ones that came from my Grandma Jenny, family favorites,  used again and again -especially for Jewish holidays. One, long neglected and forgotten, was from my maternal great grandmother. It was entitled Grandmother Roe’s Nut Bread.

I have always liked making bread, and I always knead it by hand; especially now that my Kitchenaid is 30 years old give or take. There is something very satisfying about developing the gluten and putting your whole body into getting that smooth beautiful surface that means it is ready to rise. It also moves frustration from your neck to your hands to the board; rhythmic and soothing.

What I noticed, going through these pages, was that the oldest recipes, the ones from grandmothers and great grandmothers (and mothers) are the ones with the least instruction. The ingredients are listed and stand mostly alone, just an oven temp to keep them company. It is as if it was assumed that the cook would know how to do it. How to mix and in what order. How to knead and when to stop. How to test for doneness. Mostly, I do. In order to pass these recipes on I suspect I will have to amplify them somewhat for newer, younger and less experienced cooks.

It is a lovely feeling to mix and knead and bake with the same ingredients and in the same ways as the woman, and men, before me. Recipes used by generations and family long gone.  We connect through food as surely as any other way. It is why we sit down together for thanksgiving, for passover, for chanukah. It is why we gift each other cookies we ate as children, doled out by a loving hand. I know these things in my bones. Food is memory, food is connection, food can be love. And the nut bread is absolutely delicious!

 

Empty Drawers

The tall dresser stands on the wall of my bedroom like a long ago hope chest. The drawers are empty, filled only with fantasy. What am I waiting for? Not sure. Like some little girl reading fairy tales, waiting for prince charming to come and fill the drawers? Not likely I think.

So honestly, I am not sure what it is those empty drawers represent. The empty space in my life? The empty space in my heart? There is an empty space in both, but my heart is full of love as is my life, both filled with wonderful family and friends. I am a very lucky woman and I know it. But oh those empty drawers.

At this time in my life I think more than anything, they represent the opposite. The empty drawers represent courage and right decisions. They represent strength and gratitude.

So I will fill my empty drawers with writing. With songs. With prayers. With recipes. With pictures of people I love. Mostly virtually. But every time I look at that dresser standing tall in the corner of my bedroom I will imagine all of those things filling the drawers and I will smile.

Attentive Reading

During this odd time of social isolation I find myself picking up books that have been in my stack either unread or partially read for some time. Oddly, the last two revolve around the great tragedies of the last centuries; the “transatlantic” slave trade and the exterminations of World War II. They are slim volumes that would be read quickly if they were less important or less affecting.

Barracoon, just completed, is a non-fiction work written by Zora Neale Hurston begun in 1927. It was extremely difficult for her to find a publisher and this is a re-issued version with a foreword by Alice Walker. Hurston, a cultural anthropologist, managed to find the last survivor of the last African slave cargo ship brought to America. The book is the story of this survivor, of how he was taken and how he was living then and in that present time in America. Barracoon was the word for the slave barracks where slaves were held for transport and sale. The book is resonant with a sorrow I cannot begin to understand. It is written exactly as she heard him speak, in a difficult pidgeon. And so it requires close concentration to get the meaning. I am generally a fast reader but this held me to a slower, more attentive pace. It is a heartbreaking account of a tragic life, ripped from his home and family, sold into slavery, finding a way to live in “freedom”, losing his wife and all his children. This is his account of heartbreak in his simple, affecting words; of looking across to the hill where his entire Americky family lay buried at the time he recounted his story to Hurston. This pierces the heart of the African American identity in a visceral and personal way. This is not an observer account, it is a subjective memoir spoken in his own voice with very little interjection by the “author”. Everyone should read this as a stepping stone to some small understanding.

And then, as if this wasn’t sufficient sorrow, I picked up Night by Elie Wiesel. This was the first thing he wrote, again reissued. It wasn’t popular when published as nobody wanted to acknowledge the truth of the european extermination. It is his first hand account of the time that, in denial still, his community was first turned into ghetto and later emptied of Jews, transported first to Birkenau, then dispersed to the ovens or work camps. It is his first hand account of the last time he saw his neighbors, loaded into cattle cars, and then his own family’s journey. It is his account of the last time he saw his mother and his seven year old sister as they walked to the crematorium. It is his account of witnessing his father’s death. It is his account of his loss of youth and faith and humanity. I have stood in the crematorium at Birkenau, remarkably intact. I have stood in the ruins at Dachau. And as much as I felt the presence of what happened in those places, and have seen the evidence – the coats, the hair, the shoes – I still cannot truly imagine the horror and enormity of the evil. He describes watching truckloads of babies being loaded into the fire, how do you survive the memory of that? For some reason, one of the most compelling images in this slim volume is of Jews speaking the Kaddish Yatom, the prayer for the dead, for themselves as they marched to their death. This is the prayer we speak for our dead, for others. It is a prayer of praise, not of death. And despite his loathing of any prayer praising a God that would allow the abominations to happen, he found himself reciting it as he thought he was about to die, so ingrained it was in him.

So why am I reading these things? I have no idea, they were next in the stack. But being in isolation allows me the space to read them with attention, with care and with thoughtfulness. That is my book report for today. Shalom