The young woman walked into the voting booth, turned and closed the curtain. That gesture, instead of making her feel free, as it was intended, intensified her sense of unprotected isolation. She was physically sequestered, but all the influences were in there with her. She knew what was expected of her but had no intention of delivering it. As she reached for the pencil, she felt her hand shaking slightly, and was surprised - she thought it would be easier.
“I can retain neither respect nor affection for government
which has been moving from wrong to wrong
in order to defend its immorality.” Mahatma Gandhi (Letter to the Viceroy, Young India, August 4, 1920)
The Conscience of Rulers
I often wonder if it is possible for any ruling class to be decision makers of conscience - where conscience is the basic ingredient for governing. Not just sometimes, but all the time. Not just as idealistic newcomers, but as honed and seasoned politicians, as well. Does expediency always replace ethics in the end? Does the acceptance into the club begin a spontaneous metamorphosis impossible to countervail? Does the power that comes with that job and that status, corrupt? Is there a point of no return where the magnitude of power is so absolute, that the corruption has reached the foundation of character? The empirical evidence would suggest, yes. And that same evidence would suggest that those who do not succumb are absorbed, made impotent and alienated.
How in the world did we get here?
A past, a history - based on slavery and genocide, misogyny and colonialism, theft and brutality, hatred and white supremacy, unpurged and unhealed, alive and well in the DNA of the present, pulling the reigns, hidden and covert, to stay the same course into the future. Wheeling and dealing, throwing the unpowerful under that eternal bus, in all good conscience, for the agenda of the rich.
Wheeling and Dealing - Scenario 1
The early 1770’s. Two statesmen, standing with their hands meaningfully behind their backs, brows furrowed in deep thought, heads bowed with the weight of decision. A third stands near the door, resolute, obviously angry, ready to walk, if he has to. Either slavery stays or the South is out. He knows it. He has these two hypocritical slave owners in his pocket.
Wheeling and Dealing – Scenario 2
1812. The room is electrified with hot tempers, shouts, passionate arguments and searing opposition. It stinks of sweaty anger. Too soon for war. The people are tired of war. But the first war remains unfulfilled. Britain controls the seas. Britain interrupts our trade. Britain sides with the Indians and hinders our growth westward. The savages refuse assimilation. We must conquer and expand. It is our manifest destiny. We go to war.
Wheeling and Dealing – Scenario 3
Late 1870s. A courtroom filled with Chinese immigrants, Chinese Americans, white lawyers, a white judge. A Chinese man sits accused. No papers. Where are they? At home. My client wishes to testify. Are you a Christian? No. Then the Bible oath is null and void. The word of a Chinese carries no weight. Is there a white man to speak in corroboration?
Wheeling and Dealing – Scenario 4
1914. A tent city. Coal miners and their families in unlivable living conditions. Armed for protection against owners’ gangs. A grand strike, union solidarity. Government and mine owners are complicit. Enter strike breakers, enter National Guard. A machine gun opens fire. A battle ensues, a fire set by the Guard. A massacre - defeat. Many dead. Children dead. Suppression. No gains, no justice.
So, what about those very flawed, yet revered heroes of our history? Through their example, is it possible to accept conscience as an absolute criterion for good? Or does it rather become apparent that conscience, despite all its celebration in the halls of ethics, has a great fallibility? If the mind is deeply scripted in preconceived notions, falsehoods and fears, the workings of conscience will be heavily contaminated, and the field becomes ripe for greed and obdurate ambition to take dominion. The delusive, fallacious and fear-based conclusions deemed as “right decisions” are exposed as self-serving pacts with one’s own demons. And in a wily network of manipulation, the collective moral conscience is entrapped.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” Attributed to Chief Seattle (speech of 1854)
The Conscience of Warriors
It was the winter of 1990/91. An old friend (of my husband, and now mine) who had lived in West Berlin since finishing school was getting married. We were invited. So many impressions of what was and what is, and so very different from the Germany of the south that I was used to. I had lived and worked in Berlin before, but that was another time, another era. Now, the “wall” had been razed and the city was in the beginning stages of a metamorphosis – confused, clamorous, tumultuous, in a state of conspicuous rapture. But……not for everyone. Like a faded photograph found in a closed-up box in the attic, I am taken back to the image of Russians soldiers standing at long tables on street corners, selling their equipment, their medals, accessories to their uniforms, anything that would gratify the curious tourist as a souvenir of that most interesting time, anything that would hearten the happy and relieved Berliner that that time was now, once and for all, over…..anything that would bring a price to pay their way home. Looking into those soft, sweet faces, with hopeful eyes that someone would want some trinket from the life that had abandoned them, the conundrum of their situation was not lost on me. Not long before this, they would have stood at their posts. Not long before this, they would have been ordered to shoot anyone who committed a transgression against the established order. And not long before this, in all likelihood, they would have done it. But today…..they were sad, young men trying to get home.
Downtown Philadelphia, sometime in the mid 1980’s. Between teaching and rehearsing, I was walking to get food. The streets were blocked off, as if for a parade. Some few people were waiting. So, I waited. I had time. But no celebrational marching bands came, no well-practiced drummers playing complex, coordinated rhythms, no colorful floats and no costumed participants. A rank and file group of Vietnam veterans walked toward us. I watched them, mostly men then, walking almost in slow motion, friends pushing friends in wheelchairs, friends helping friends on crutches, with blind eyes and incomplete limbs, keeping up and enduring the march. My breathing became labored with the weight of their presence and my tears met their sorrow. Here they were, now years later, openly revealing their misshapen thoughts and memories, exposing their broken hearts and souls still in mourning, asking not to be forgotten, asking not to be left alone, asking for our kindness, no matter what they had done.
What is the conscience of the soldier - the one who volunteers out of passion for a cause, the one who takes the long-term job as protector of the body politic, the one who sees no other choice, who volunteers because good housing is available, commodities are affordable, and education is free, or the one who knows he or she needs to grow up, but doesn’t quite know how, so joins the army? And from all these differing inducements, do the principles of the individual converge into a single mindedness of purpose? Does one soldier become all soldiers in a collective conscience united in response to a named threat? Is that collective conscience a (mindless) tool ready to be manipulated by any authority? Is the soldier’s conscience appeased by believing that he or she is a part of a well-oiled machine designed to react quickly as a need arises? And is that enough?
To make war, or not to make war. And with whom, for what reason. To risk life, limb and sanity on an order. To visit irrevocable pain onto……..whomever. To adhere to an inconstant and fluctuating authority. Today a liberal, tomorrow a conservative. Either way, irrelevant. Follow the order, fulfill your duty, keep your eyes front and don’t question.
But you who are trained in obedience and military camaraderie, are you not creatures of thought and compassion, with skills of perception and analysis, because you are human? Are not integrity and wisdom your birthrights because you are human? Is not questioning embedded in your human psyche, questioning until there are no more questions? Are not truth and tranquility your inheritance to claim? You have seen the other side of the coin. What says your conscience?
“I did what my conscience told me I had to do,
and you can’t fail if you do that.” Anita Hill (CBS, 60 Minutes – February 2, 1992)
A single vote of conscience
The election will be soon upon us. And so, it begins – the name-calling and the taking of sides, the shaming and the blaming, the designating of friends and enemies, the establishing of territories, the labeling, the breaking off into factions and the litmus testing. In other words, the bumpy ride is underway, to where we, the electorate, must decide who makes decisions in our name.
We ask our conscience to help us choose but steeped in spoon-fed preconceived notions on the one hand and bound to our nationalistic mythology on the other, we deny our conscience an open field. We accept the demonization of 3rd, 4th, and 5th choices because we are ego-stroked into delegitimatizing all viewpoints but our own, barricading from our conscience thought and compassion, perception and analysis limited to the inner circle, integrity and wisdom bartered for self-importance and self-justification. We stand divided……but divided we cannot stand long.
“Selling out your conscience is like
putting a hole in your soul and watching it
fill up with shame.” Lib Briscoe- from personal experience
Let my conscience be my guide*
Oh, to be resolute of conscience, without question or doubt, to serve no one’s purpose but my own, without falter, in luxurious contentment. To stand amid the shaming, the blaming and the name-calling, unmoved, with steadfast conviction, remembering that suffrage was hard fought and hard won, and to not allow those victories to have been in vain - to trust that inner voice with calm assurance. But how? The divisions are real and the possibility of losing friends and alienating family is undeniable. Trusted relationships are in danger of becoming shaky and strained as disagreements elevate to the questioning of the compatibility of core values – a harrowing challenge to grapple with.
But if the right to vote is sacred, then my right to my vote is sacred. It belongs exclusively to me and my conscience and no one else can ever own it. No political party will ever own my vote. No standing politician and no candidate own my vote, even the ones of my choice. No commentators, no journalists, whether I agree or disagree with them, own my vote. Neither my family nor my friends, not those dear people I deeply love and sincerely respect and revere, own my vote. I own it and will use it as I and my conscience see fit. As I am aware, with that comes grave responsibility, as my conscience constantly reminds me. And I am unsettled and not without fear. But my conscience doesn’t desert me, but remains, sometimes most annoyingly, present.
She demands my courage and makes me work, tugging at my complacency and forcing me to pay attention. When we are connected, she seeks truth and knowledge through deep deliberation with me. She strives to help me see beyond the ego center and take in the multiplicity of the horizon, recognizing myself as only one star in an infinity of others. She joins me to the living spirit that annuls the acts and practices of malevolence and encourages me to embrace the universal love that all dreams of Utopia are based on. She is unwavering.
“There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience” French Proverb
Temptation wrapped its arms around the young woman’s shoulders, and she leaned into it, picturing the fellowship she was giving up, the party she would no longer be invited to. As her eyes focused on the form in front of her, her breathing became shallow. The pencil moved to her choice of conscience and she checked the box. It took a while before she turned and opened the curtain again. How would she tell them, or would she tell them at all? She decided, the first thing she would do, is take a walk.
*Jiminy Cricket, Walt Disney’s Pinocchio
„It kinda feels like I'm missing something!” he says and scans the pockets of his pants and jacket with both hands. The irritated wrinkles on his forehead abruptly turn into an expression of sheer terror, as he lifts his gaze and stares at me wide-eyed. „Oh shit, my backpack!” No way! I can hear my nerves, that have already been stretched to a braking point, cracking by yet one more piece of fiber. He has got to be kidding me! „Do you have his number?”, I ask my spouse in an angry tone, though I already know the answer. „No!” He begins fumbling around with his phone.
We are standing in front of the automated revolving doors that mark the entrance to the Hamburg airport. His brother's friends were nice enough to drop us off here on their way back to Munich. After our short excursion up north with his family, my husband and I want to take a brief trip down south to visit my family. Tomorrow finally we’ll be flying back to Canada (our current home). A very challenging venture as it is, but the fellow just had to top it off and forget his backpack!
In a car which belongs to a guy whose number we don't have and who we – even if we did – couldn't call anyway because our American provider has no service in Germany. I take a deep breath and try to flush out my rage with the consumed air. Throwing a tantrum won't help the situation. Meanwhile my cursing, anger elicitor tries to log on to the airport WiFi without success. I wield my backpack – yes, I for one have my backpack! – off my shoulder and start digging for my phone. How is it that you can never quickly find what you're looking for in women's purses? „Babe, can you please try, too?” the man's voice says beside me. „I'm looking!” I shove my tissues to the side for the third time now … where the hell is it? „Babe!” the voice calls, more obnoxious this time. „Dude, my phone's not here!” The realization hits me the moment I say it out loud … I couldn't … have possibly … left it in the car?! WHAM! Goodbye nerves … thanks for hanging in there! With a super, super guilty conscience I now stare into the eyes of my lover. Whoopsie.
At last! In light of our situation, the stubborn internet seems to feel bad for us. My honey – poor guy - gets a hold of his brother on WhatsApp, he calls his friend and his friend finally lets us know that he's already on his way back to the airport. Now let's just hope that my phone really did fall out of my pocket in his car … because if it didn't … it is currently located about 150 km further north … in a youth hostel …. that everybody has already departed from … and then we really have a problem!
We trudge back to the parking lot like a pair of drowned rats and wait. After what seems like an eternity (it really couldn't have been more than 15 minutes) we see the black backpack hanging from the arm stretched out the car window, leaping towards us in anticipation. The car stops, I open the back door - pray to all the Gods, Allahs and Krishnas out there and … thank God, Allah and Krishna! There on the back seat lies my little technical friend, slumbering in deep serenity.
I tie a mental knot into my nerves as we watch our knights in shining metal blend in with the sea of departing cars. We turn to enter the main hall of the airport. I grab this world's most beautiful hand and can't believe our luck. Had he not left his rucksack in the car I probably would not have noticed my phone was missing until we reached security. I raise my gaze to the sky and thank destiny for making my husband so forgetful.
That could not have been a coincidence!
This sentence has followed me around like a kind of external mantra over the past few years. I sit across from my friend, we're drinking beer, juice or hot chocolate and I listen to his unbelievable love story … had he only done this or that a hair differently, he never would have come across his new girl. Thank heavens there is this inexplicable magnetic attraction in the exponentially expanding universe that makes sure that in the right moment, two special people out of 7 Billion don't miss each other by 2 seconds. A day later my friend and I share some bacon and eggs, steak and pasta, and she tells me about her terrible break up. She emboldens herself. „It will all make sense eventually.” We toast and that's the end of it.
It's reassuring to believe that everything that happens to us.....bad or good….. doesn't just happen arbitrarily. Even if it doesn't answer the existential question (Why are we here?) and doesn't fully explain the meaning of life, it does at least unravel certain portions of it.
But I still haven't quite wrapped my finger around what happened in that parking lot in Hamburg. My human urge to fathom everything, takes over. I wish to get to the bottom of all the “That could not have been a coincidence”s and “It will all make sense in the end.”s
So, what exactly hides behind this great mystery that we so self-evidently call “fate”?
When typing into Google, it says: „The development of events outside a person's control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power.“ Fate can mean reaching the final point (he succumbed to his fate) or mean new beginnings (that was his destiny). It can be uncertainty (who knows what fate holds in store for me) or deliver a sense of security (to accept one’s fate).
In ancient Greek mythology, the Three Fates - Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, also known as the Moirai - made the decisions about peoples' destinies – the crucial thread of life was spun by Clotho, handed out by Lachesis and cut in half by Atropos. They would follow a person throughout his life and with the counsel of the gods make him or her face the consequences of their actions. However, Zeus had the power to intervene if he chose to.
In many Germanic cultures, fate, which was a force they called „Wyrd“ or „Urd“, was equally shaped by a group, often times also a trio of strong female entities - the Norns carved the course of events in the cosmos, and people's lives into the base of the tree, Yggdrasil, which stood at the center of the cosmos. Even the gods themselves were subject to fate. There were no moral implications, evil plots or lessons to be learned in how the Norns chose to carve these scenarios. Ironically their decisions seemed oddly arbitrary.
Granted, we now disdainfully laugh about these ideas that are so far from our modern perception. But it's always a good idea to look at things in a different light and challenge your imagination a bit.
Me as a toddler, for example - I was extremely fascinated by the Holy Spirit. You can hear his name emerge every so often in a river of my incomprehensible jabbering on old vintage cassettes. Dadadayaya Holy Ghost kaaaaammbfff. The whole principle of an invisible force really did not make sense to me at all. It was perfectly clear in my mind: If Jesus was a man, and God was his father, the Holy Ghost must be some type of uncle. Just as tangible a person with a nose, a mouth and eyes, a halo crowning his head and surrounded throughout by a bright shining light.
Sometimes it is a good idea to perceive things from a different angle. So, let's pretend, just for fun, that Fate is an equally personified energy. And since the trinity … at least in my mind ... is very strong male domain, let's go back to those ancient mythologies and pretend, just for fun, that her name is Emma.
Good old Emma.
Our friendship reaches back multiple years now and it's absolutely wonderful - one of those friendships, where you don't have to stay in touch 24/7 to be on good terms with one another. We sometimes won't hear from each other for months and then suddenly out of the blue we run into each other and everything feels just like old times. Every once in a while, she'll ring through when I'm home or visit me at work. Our paths seem to cross most frequently while traveling.
Like on my Solo-trip to Rom a few years ago, for example.
I spent my first day bravely walking from one tourist attraction to the next, dying from the heat of
the Mediterranean sun. After I had gone through the mandatory notion of sticking my hand into the „Bocca della verità”, I lingered around an old ruin for a while - which upon closer inspection turned out to be a construction site - and finally grunted my way to the next attraction. As I reached my destination and spun the map back and forth in my hands, my sweatshirt as protective sun repellent dangling from my head, I suddenly heard the sound of my name ring through the babble of voices. „Sara, is that you?” I turned around and peered into the beaming face of an old friend of mine from Berlin. As it turned out, the Erasmus student was planning to enjoy her afternoon break in another park on the other side of town. She had changed her mind at the last minute and decided to spend it in a park close by. We hadn't seen or heard from each other in 2 years and now we were standing face to face smiling in disbelief in this bustling tourist epicenter.
Fast forward a year. I booked an excursion to London – once again by myself. I had initially planned to fly a few days earlier but for some reason I can't quite recall anymore, I had to push my flight back a few days. As I strolled across the airport to my gate, a way too expensive airport-breakfast-pretzel in my hand and delighted with anticipation – London Eye, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace … watch out, here I come! … a familiar face came marching right at me. No way! Regina had attended the same acting school in the class a year after me. I hadn't seen her in ages either, and yet here she was, standing in front of me, her sister to her right, her friend to her left and asked me with a huge grin on her face: „Are you taking the flight to London at 11, too?“
All I wanted was to travel to two places I had always wanted to visit and spend some time with myself. But in both cases I had two funny, unexpected encounters and the following days we spent together will always have a very special place in my heart. Thanks, Emma.
But at times Emma remains a mystery to me. There she goes through all the trouble of bringing my acquaintance and his, to that point unacquainted, neighbour together on the other side of the planet, and under hilarious circumstances. But then, she can't even get my neighbor's daughter to tie her shoes 3 seconds longer, so she leaves her house 3 seconds later and doesn't get hit by the truck that came speeding around the corner.
But anytime I try to mention this to her, she always says: „That wasn't me! That was Greta!” Oh yeah, Greta. Greta is Emma’s evil twin sister. She always happens to conveniently appear when Emma doesn't feel like it. Unlike Emma, Greta seems to enjoy playing more or less grave tricks on people. It is absolutely no pleasure having Greta around. She's what we would call „stupid coincidence” in everyday jargon. The slow line at the cashier, the forgotten keys, the overlooked bill.
Last time Greta and I bumped into each other, she distracted me with the sound of my phone ringing while I was clearing out the dishwasher. I turned my head for one second and that's all it took for a piece of my favorite cup to break off. I admit, that's no earth-shattering drama. It's a pain, yes, but nothing a little hot glue can't fix. There have been times though, when Greta put a stone under the snow where my friends were skiing, or out of the blue pushed a nervous beginner on the slope they were coming down on. The arm, the leg, that hip could not be patched up with just a bit of hot glue.
Thank god it looks like Emma and I seem to catch the travel bug at the same time … I don't even want to imagine who Greta would send my way … probably an ex-boyfriend with his new lover, or a loathed old teacher from high school. No, no, no … I definitely prefer Emma.
And yet – as much as I appreciate Emma and her good-heartedness – I do have my doubts about her. Sometimes, I feel like she is making us just a bit more egocentric – and everyone is trying to claim her for themselves. All of a sudden, everything is a sign, an act of God, a hint of the Universe. Yet if we take ourselves out of the equation for a second … it seems like Emma raises more questions than she answers. Is it really possible that all those little “non-coincidences” that need to occur for such a Rome or London story to unfold, only happened so that I would have a great tale to tell? And did all these “non-coincidences” lead to other people on this path, blindly falling into Greta's traps?
The craziest part about this whole thing is that these antithetical uniovular sisters look confusingly alike. I have often almost gotten a panic attack seeing Greta turn the corner and only realized by the sweet-tempered smile on her face, that it was really Emma who had just crept her way back into my life.
Just like in that story of the guy whose wife cooked for him the night before September 11th and ended up lying in bed with the shits when the Twin Towers were hit. Out of fear of hurting her feelings he didn't tell his new bride that he thought there was something fishy about her beef burritos. Stupid coincidence that the first meal his wife made him, gave him food poisoning … or so he thought until he saw the pictures on the news. A classic case of initially confusing Emma for Greta. But whenever I ask Emma why she didn't hide moldy ground meat in all the other 3000 people's meals the night before, she pretends she can't hear me.
It makes the calamities we face easier to deal with, if we believe that everything has a deeper meaning to it – but how can we be sure when Emma is spinning the yarn and when Greta is carving the wood? Is everything part of a bigger plan? Is it all just pure coincidence? Or just a course of events in life on a planet that has no deeper meaning than to simply exist? Where and how do freedom of choice and accountability play a role? Is chance what truly dominates our existence and fate just another sad victim of its power?
Maybe it was fate that my husband forgot his backpack. Or maybe it was sheer dumb luck. After all, we could have both taken another look around the car before we got out. Perhaps it was a magnetic pull of the universe that brought me and an old friend together on one of the busiest spots in Rome. Or it was possibly just a coincidence. I've probably missed many incredible encounters, window shopping or squirrel watching by two streets without knowing.
I do not wish to claim that I know if this thing called fate and destiny really exists. Maybe the idea of fate is the same as that about the religions in the ring parable of „Nathan the Wise”: For those who believe in it, it exists. I do believe that you can learn from and grow in any given situation that life throws at you – no matter if the Norns, the Moirai, Emma, Greta or some combination of them all are the ones behind it.
Takoda Tortoise (M)………………………Friend to everyone…………….Sioux
Gomda Gibbon (M)………………………..Wind…………………………………Kiowa
Cheyevo Chimpansee (M)……………..Spirit Warrior……………………..Hopi
Gaho Gorilla (F)…………………………….Mother……………………………….Unspecified Native Origin
Posala Pig (F)……………………………….Farewell to Spring flowers……Miwok
Sitala Sow (F)……………………………….Display Memory…………………..Miwok
Doba Dolphin (F)………………………….There Was No War……………...Navajo
Wapun Whale (F)…………………………Dawn…………………………………..Potawatomi
Lallo Lion (M)………………………………Little Boy………………………………Kiowa
Lomahongva Leopard (F)…………….Beautiful Clouds Arising………..Hopi
Rowtag Raven (M)………………………Fire……………………………………….Algonquian
Wakiza Wolf (M)…………………………Desperate Warrior………………..Unspecified Native Origin
Donoma Dog (F)………………………….Visible Sun…………………………….Omaha
Bidzill Buffalo (M)………………………..He is Strong………………………….Navajo
Baishan Bees (Swarm)…………………Knife……………………………………..6 Nations of the Apache
Eluwilussit Elephant (Family)………Holy One………………………………...Algonquian
Gaho slowly raised herself out of the makeshift nest and moved toward the Circle. As her younger kinsmen rose to help her, she waved them down again, reassuringly. The occasion demanded that she go alone – her show of strength here as an elder would be essential as inspiration to the others to remain steadfast. She did not rush. There was no need. As she approached, Takoda moved to the front of the Circle and acknowledged her with a bow of his head. She touched the side of his face and he raised himself onto his hind legs, leaning his head to hers. Takoda looked at her, then out into the stadium and said, “We begin!” He returned to his place. Gaho moved onto the platform and spoke to the throng.
I am Gaho Gorilla. When the forests were plentiful, before the land was ill-distributed, there was room for us all. The fruits of the trees nourished us, the leaves a delicacy to be had all year round. We made soft beds for our newborns and cared as a community for our children and grandchildren. Our life was our own, and though death was well known to us, our existence remained in balance with the winters and summers of our world, the autumns and the springs. Now, so many of us are murdered, our children stolen and abused. The forests that were home to us are leveled and replaced with a single plant that cannot sustain us. Sometimes, for the better, we live in captivity. But even in benevolent captivity, we cannot be who we truly are, and we cannot teach our children and help them to be who they truly are. Inside walls, we become bored, then despondent. We forget how to be self-sufficient and woefulness erodes our spirit. We become ill. Those humans who wish to help us are far too few and cannot alone reverse the onslaught of the annihilation we face. Despite their efforts, the road laying before us is a sure genocide. We, ourselves, must act!
When she finished speaking, there was a low hum of agreement in the crowd. She turned and walked to Takoda and Gomda and sat with them at the rear of the circle, as they had agreed.
Two females of the domestic pig delegation were approaching, visibly shaking in the presence of so many natural enemies. Gaho went to them and opened her long arms in welcome. “Here you are safe, you may be sure.” They smiled in gratitude and walked behind her onto the dais. They looked out uncertainly and began to speak in canon.
We are Posala and Sitala. We live and die among humans – we were bred for this purpose and we have accepted that over a thousand generations. But the tides have shifted and we are no longer treated with respect and compassion. In former times, the farmsteads had space for running and rolling, as we love to do. Soft barn floors, where we gave birth to and nursed our children, were prepared for us. They remained with us until our milk and protection were no longer necessary. Yes, we knew their and our fate, but there was still a quiet dignity. Now a change has happened, and we are in trauma. We are trapped in enclosures that allow no movement, not even a turn of the head. In these prisons, we have our babies, we can barely see them, let alone snuggle with them as a mother should. Some die, some are grabbed from us, cut and thrown……..somewhere. We hear their screams and weep in helplessness. We have had more babies than we can count and known so few of them. Our bodies are massive beyond our nature and we are weak from lack of sunshine and lack of fresh air to breathe. We are left dirty and sick with sores. Life is only pain. Those humans who wish to help us are far too few and cannot alone reverse the onslaught of diseases of mind and body that now plague us. Despite their efforts, the road laying before us is perpetual suffering. We, ourselves, must act.
As they left the platform, their shivering had ceased. The pity that Gomda had felt earlier now turned into deep respect. Their utter defenselessness was outweighed by an uncharacteristic, yet overwhelming bravery and determination born of desperation. And they had risen to the moment.
The next to come were Wakizo of the Wolf Clan and Donoma, the representative of the domestic dog coalition. “They are quite beautiful together,” said Takoda, “these cousins. The dogs chose well, for the Siberian husky is very close in appearance to the wolf clan. Here they make a formidable appearance, and here they will once again feel their kinship.” “As do we,” said Gaho, looking at Gomda. Instinctively he climbed to a branch, jumped to another and another and back again to her side to show his deep appreciation for her acknowledgement.
The canines stepped onto the dais.
We are Wakizo/and Donoma. We are cousins/of a very different mind……………….Humans are our enemies/humans are our friends…………..They starve us, closing us off from our food supply/they feed us well, often from their own table…………….We are being slaughtered daily, our numbers decrease/we are loved, but changes are occurring………………We are hunters and travelers, in need of a wide berth of territory, made smaller and smaller by their greed for the land/we are domesticated and a friend of sorts, but the in-breeding makes us sick and debilitated, handicaps us. The habitats that suit our different breeds are disregarded as we live in unfit climates……………… We are recognized as spirit animals in their books but are called trespassers and pests in reality. Our natural food supply dwindles and when we search for food where we can find it, we are shot on the land that was once ours/We are in their homes and we love them, we adore their children, but leashes are tightening, rules more severe, cages become more and more the norm and our mouths are tied. What freedom we had dwindles rapidly, we are turned out, our newborns too often thrown away in bags, like waste…………The terms of coexistence are unreliable and fluctuating. We will not acquiesce when there is no stability/Those humans who wish to help us are too few…………And they cannot alone reverse the onslaught of this degradation/Despite them, the long road laying before us is confinement………….And extermination/We, ourselves, must act.
Leaving the dais, they walked down the ramp in solemnity. As they headed to their places, all the canines present, dogs and wolves, moved together into a single pack.
Their deep hum preceded them. The Baishan Bees flew down from some hidden place in the large yew tree and hovered above the dais. The hum rose and fell as the bees moved around the platform, air born. And slowly, out of the droning hum, words began to form in the single voice of the collective clan.
We are the Baishan. We are the siblings of the green plants of earth and the flowers and blossoms that that are our sustenance. As we drink the ambrosia, we gather and spread the seed for new life to grow. We are dying. We are being poisoned and our numbers dwindle. The poison is in the trees, the flowers and the fields. It kills us. We are being poisoned and our colonies can thrive only in great numbers. When we fly to our hive, the contamination is carried into our nest. It kills many, the workers, the caretakers, many. It kills our mother queen. All trees are one tree, not the many we need. Too little nourishment. We are starving. We behave erratically. We abandon our nest and our mother. A new enemy attacks us. A small enemy invades our home. It attaches itself to us and depletes our bodies. We are damaged and become weak. Our premature death reduces our community. The feel of the hot wind changes our sister flowers and our bodies resist and die. Many help us, but too few. Too little. Too late. Involuntary extinction. We do not accept it. We must act!
In one sweeping motion, they flew back up and disappeared again in the upper branches of the grand yew.
A deafening roar filled the stadium, and Takoda, despite his innate ability to at least appear calm, lowered his gaze sharply. Lallo of the Lion clan bounded forward, and from some distance leaped high, his body stretched and strong, and landed in the middle of the platform. He turned slowly and began pacing back and forth along the front of the dais, looking like his many brothers who had been confined in circus wagons. Lomahongva of the Leopard clan followed more slowly and jumped gently onto the platform, situating himself in a front corner, his tail swishing side to side, somewhat frantically. Gaho realized, these majestic, self-assured felines had fallen into a deep despondency, very close to depression. Though they were difficult to read, she had seen it before in her own, and could recognize it. There was not a creature present who did not have reason to be frightened of them, yet what filled them all now was pity, the same pity each one felt for the other. These great cats had lost their potency and the fall had been hard. Lallo began to speak but did not look out. It was not clear if he was speaking to the multitude…….or to himself.
We were kings, were we not? We were free, were we not? The illusion has faded, and the danger that has been upon us for some hundreds of years takes tangible form. Captured and caged! Caged and ridiculed! Ridiculed, whipped and burned! Contained, confined and controlled………We are of the wild – it is our birthright! No other way of life is satisfactory……..Now we are disgraced in our powerlessness. Fear of extinction is upon us. The trembling that was in our prey as we hunted is now in us……….But we were not barbarous! When our stomachs were full, the antelope lived beside us in peace. We laid leisurely in the warm sun for days, watching our young ones play and learn. Trophy killings, violation and enslavement are the postures of barbarians. These were not our crimes…………We are solitary creatures, loyal only to our own family clan. But now, our detachment must be relinquished – we join with you. You have our word.
Lallo and Lomahongva walked down the ramp slowly, upright on their four legs, back to their place. Their conscious attempt to show they posed no threat to the others was successful and greatly appreciated.
A sound akin to the call of the apes, but higher and sharper, came from the direction of the tanks. A member of the Doba Dolphin Community was calling on the attention of the assembly, given that the sea creatures could not use the dais. Takoda, Gaho and Gomda walked to the front of the dais to get a full view of these great sea mammals. All three smiled. The Dobas woke a special feeling in any living creature that crossed their path. They were playful and fun-loving, but one must not be fooled. They had a keen sense of the world around them and had saved many lives in the oceans. In their voices was a great healing power and their communal lives were as complex as any on earth. The Wapun Whale sang soulfully, filling the stadium with heart-wrenching tones. The Doba and Wapun alternated as speakers, as each one surfaced for air.
We are the Doba and the Wapun. The seas grow warm and unpredictable. Much that was alive chokes and dies, the currents change course and the natural flow of fish life and plant life is interrupted. The flora and fauna at the merging point of land and ocean suffer greatly, their nourishment inadequate, drowned, their survival, and ours, threatened. Our waters are defiled and our brother fish and sister sea dwellers become ill, mal-formed or die. The taste of the water is bitter, seen and unseen elements of extermination invading our world. We, too, have been captured and caged, but now many humans recognize our need for freedom and the community of our family. For that we are glad and grateful. But our world is full of the waste of mankind’s habits, and before the question of consequence was even asked, many whims of advancement were implemented, the problem-solving left to the future we all now face. And now a new substance fills our stomachs that we cannot eliminate. We are full, and yet we starve. This new useless creation is now in us, in our brother fish, and in our cousins that fly, and it grows in magnitude with each turn of the four seasons. We can barely avoid consuming it, because it is everywhere. By the millions, our numbers decrease each year. If we do not act, we are already dead!
The heavy lapping of the water ceased as the Wapun and Doba went back to swimming quietly in their tanks and the stadium was silent for a long and somber moment.
The Shikoba Starlings rose up on the wind, a sound rising with them like the winter waves on the western shore, or a waterfall crashing into the pool it creates and replenishes. Thousandfold, they danced in the sky over the stadium in magical assembly and harmony as one, swirling and tumbling, shaping and reshaping patterns in the sky; billowing and contracting, creating forms that solidified for a moment, then metamorphized into another in the next. Everyone watched, spellbound. They spoke no words and gave no testimonial. Instead, the Shikoba sculpted celestial portraits of all those present at the gathering- the lion, the eagle, the prairie dog, the hedgehog, the buffalo, the antelope, the frog, the lizard, the ape, the elephant, the salmon, the whale, the turtle…….and all the others. As each one saw his or her own likeness fill the sky, they were both honored and humbled, feeling their own importance, but knowing it was in equal balance to the importance of all the others. The enormous wind died down as the Shikoba settled back into the trees.
“Magnificent,” said Takoda. “We are all uplifted,” said Gaho. “It is a gift we will cherish as we follow the road we set for ourselves today.” “We are body and we are beyond body,” whispered Takoda. “The Shikoba has reminded us and it will be prudent for us to remember it.” He had no wish to break the spell, but he breathed deeply and said, “We must continue.”
Three members of the Cheyevo Clan walked across the field, upright, aware that all eyes were watching them with a great anticipation shrouded in fear. They were the link between humankind and all other living creatures, and their voice carried a great weight. The Cheyevo guardian held the hand of the female at his side, his wife and companion, until they reached the center of the dais. She put her head to his as they slowly let go, and all three turned to each other in a close silence. Takoda, who knew this to be a posture of mourning, walked onto the dais and spoke to them quietly. “Cheyevo, if there is hope of any other way, it lies in your knowledge. What would you tell us?” Takoda felt the guardian’s eyes heavy on him. Gomda and Gaho walked up the ramp. She leaned wearily on the young gibbon, as the strength now seemed to leave her body. They both climbed onto one of the surrounding yew trees. The Cheyevo guardian greeted the matriarch with great respect and concern, acknowledged his cousin gibbon, then looked out to the multitude, the other two of his clan flanking him from a little behind.
We are what is left of the Cheyevo clan. 50 years ago, we still believed. Today we do not. We are the closest cousins to the humans - of the same line and the same blood, though they would deny us. But we know them. They are obsessed with their illusion of superiority and a fabricated sense of stewardship over us. We do not need them, and the destruction that has ensued has proven them to be of inferior understanding. We are all necessary to one another for our existence – that awareness lives in our deepest instinct. But to our misfortune, not in theirs! Our lives have only three purposes in their eyes – we must play the jester to entertain them, we must be slaughtered to feed them, and we must succumb to their experiments. The tragedy of my unbalanced kinspeople is that they judge our ways and call us primitive and barbaric, while surpassing us all in depravity. They are as cruel to one another as they are to us, and their wars have become cataclysmic for all. They starve each other and they starve us. They deny entry to gardens of plenty to one another and they deny us. They cage each other, and they cage us. We have known those who see our plight and fight for us. And I have seen victories and been glad. But humanity is inconstant. The promise of the first means nothing to the next in line and that promise is undone. Though some express honest sympathy, they do not change their course as they must, even for themselves, their hedonistic addiction to unnatural comforts making them nearsighted. Humankind as a whole cannot be trusted to reach a true accord, because it is inordinately unstable within itself, even in its final hour. We have no choice……..but to act!
The Cheyevo acknowledged Gaho, Takoda and Gomda, and left as they had come – upright, hand in hand, with great dignity.
A Unanimous Accord
Tokado walked to the center of the Circle and stood on his hind legs. For many seconds he didn’t move, feeling himself in balance with his body and shell, strong despite his age. He looked out to the crowds of his fellow creatures, who, by nature, should never find themselves in such close quarters. But they were together, and they were, in this moment, all of the same mind. “Then we are in agreement.” In deliberate gestures, the small mammals and rodents raised their front paws, the birds opened one wing, then the other; the elephants raised their trunks and lowered them again, the wild dogs nodded, growled into a single yap, as did their domestic cousins. The cats purred low and the farm animals lowered themselves to reclining on the ground. Takoda settled to the ground and looked at Gaho and whispered, “’This but begins the woe that others must end….’”* Gaho climbed down from her seat on the trunk to him, “All are punish’d!”* She laid her arm across Takoda’s shell, who nodded at the waiting gibbon.
Gomda let out long, shrill whistles. The Eluwilussit joined, raising their trunks and trumpeting to the skies. The Wakizas and Donomas howled into the falling shadow of night and the Shikoba flapped their wings in the waning sunlight. The hyenas yapped and growled and bit at the wind and the Wapuns sang their mourning song, the Dopas accenting the anguished wails with whistles and clicks and throaty rhythms. The bees hummed low and dark, a foundation for the cries of the Cheveyos, Posalas and Sitalas in dancing polyrhythms. The Bidzill brotherhood swayed side to side, grunting low with each sway. The Lallos and Lomahongvas bounded across the field, sprang onto the high boulders, bared their teeth and emitted throaty growls that grew in volume to thunderous roars. Rowtags danced with the eagle and owl across the skies in passionate whirlwinds, territorial possessiveness forgotten. It was an orchestra extempore building to a climactic swell of heartbreak and despair, continuing into the deep night until, finally, at dawn, all was quiet, spent and exhausted, and reconciled. The hunger strike would begin.
As the sun rose, the silence remained unbroken and, throughout the morning hours, the delegations took their leave. They walked, crawled, hopped, slithered and pranced in a spontaneous procession the length of the stadium, showing the utmost deference to one another. The antelope had no more fear of the lion, and the rabbit, no fear of the eagle. Once in their home dwellings, they maintained their commitment and did not falter. The robin let the fly pass and did not dig for the worm. The rabbit did not eat the leaf. The pollinators did not transfer pollen and the dispersers did not spread the seeds. The animals of the world, whether domestic or wild, whether enclosed in zoos and reserves or in their natural habitat, neither procreated nor took on nourishment, not even when under threat of force, not even when that force was full of love and concern. They were dying, but now on their own terms. The slow, passive death of abuse was replaced with the honorable death of resistance. They lamented their lost life but rejoiced in the power of self-determination.
And finally, finally, humanity felt its impending ruination, but, as always, looked for answers outside of itself and blamed everything but itself. As time passed, it learned hunger, then starvation, for without animal life, plant life slowly died. Humankind discovered that it could never synthetically replicate the entirety of the world’s delicate balance and began too late to open its eyes to the necessity of brotherhood. So just as the animal world cried, howled, chirped and growled its sorrow, so humans wailed their sorrow……and their voices met. Humanity woke up, listened and heard them, for the first time in a long time. And, on the edge of extinction, understood.
*Quotes from Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Takoda Tortoise emerged from the mouth of the cavernous entrance hall into the sun-drenched stadium, now decades out of use, overgrown and abandoned by the humans who built it. It was the largest on record, he had heard, impressive but proving to be impractical to maintain- the costs were more than the generated income. The stadium had been seldom full. Interesting, thought Takoda. Though humans were susceptible to herding, more than they liked to think, the contractors had apparently overreached. The numbers needed to fill it were too big to be constant. To him and the other organizers for today’s gathering, however, it was a perfect size for their purposes. He made his way across the length of the amphitheater, slowly of course, for that was the tempo nature had given him. But he was not complaining. This gave him time – time to observe, time to think and to assess. He, himself, was never prone to rashness or thoughtlessness, his own nature had seen to that (though rashness in a tortoise was seldom recognizable to anyone but another tortoise); and it had its advantages, which was why the committee had requested him, and he accepted the task at hand. His official title was “coordinator”……but he saw himself as more of a point of focus and, he hoped, a calming influence. He took a heavy breath and released it slowly. As he passed down the center line toward the other end, he observed the Eluwilussit Elephant clan, working now since months, busy finishing the last phase of preparation for the gathering scheduled for the day after tomorrow. They, as always, were doing an excellent job. The walls and bleachers on the right side of the stadium had been knocked out and replaced with two humungous glass tanks for the marine life delegations. He caught his breath - it was somewhat frightening to conceptualize that wall of water. Unlike his cousins, who spent the major portion of their lives swimming, he was not accustomed to the vastness of a sea or an ocean. He had seen large bodies of water before through his life, but this seemed so unnatural, which, of course, it was. The event in its entirety is unnatural. The Eluwilussit would be filling them, one with salt and the other with fresh water. This fear he felt would have to be set aside for the sake of the beautiful creatures that would fill them. Takoda gazed to the left. All along the bleachers, till the structure curved around to the front and back, they had lain fresh forest leaves, branches, dirt and brush for the comfort of the delegations of small forest creatures. Trees had been erected for the bird delegations, under them the earth tamped down, leaves and brush added for the hooved animals. There were wooden stalls for the domestic animals, who were not used to the nature of the wild ones in such close proximity, so they would feel safe; and an area of large boulders piled on top of one another for the creatures of the mountains, with openings for the reptilians who preferred cold, dark recesses and for the protection and refuge of insect life. The elephant clan had, as always, worked diligently and sensitively. Takoda nodded to each one as he passed them by, and they waved their trunks in a returned greeting.
He eventually arrived at his destination – the Circle of Conciliation. A magnificent yew formed the backdrop, some forty feet high with an immense trunk. Heavy, wide branches curved down the ancient form, each adding a new connection to the earth. Other branches lifted upward and outward, thick with foliage, making a dome of shade all around it. Takoda felt reverent in its presence. In its roots resided the wisdom of the ancestors, of which they were in desperate need. And though death played a role, the foundation of its perpetual story was eternal life, and the promise of resurrection and rebirth. He moved closer. An opening in the lower trunk offered entrance to the sepulchral vault of the tree, large enough for two elephants. He wondered how the Eluwilussit could transport such a structure unharmed. He did not ask but let his wonder and awe stand. Gomda was already there, preparing their food. The mixture of tropical leaves and fruit, and water in a hole in the ground lined with palm leaves were a welcome sight. He was tired from his travels. The young gibbon would be his adjutor, and he was glad. They had met on the island in the great eastern waters and he had immediately liked Gomda’s mischievous nature and friendly demeanor. Takoda had found his white beard and eyebrows stunning against his black fur, and his movement through the trees beautiful, graceful and sure. His elegant morning song daily woke the sleeping forests. “Is everything ready?” Takoda asked. “What do you think, great oldster?” was the gibbon’s sassy answer. Takoda chuckled. If he made it another twenty-five years, he would be 200, he mused. They sat together in the opening of the tree, ate a little and chatted until the old tortoise sighed and said, “Let’s prepare the trees.” The main Circle of Conciliation was patterned after the ancient megaliths, built beyond memory, when humans still connected earth and sky, still revered the hallowed circle and still felt universal kinship. But instead of stone, the elephants had replanted seven straight young yew trees to create the sacred circle, in honor of renewed life, the transformation after death and ancient wisdom - each about 7 feet high with leaves in umbrella formations, one at the top like a cap and 4 or 5 on thick branches jutting out from the trunks. A dais with one ramp from the back facing the old yew and one from the front toward the stadium, was placed in the middle. On this platform, each and every creature could speak his or her piece without interruption, where no living creature could be beset upon by another. They set to work until each trunk was a smooth light brown, one using the strength of his jaw, the other his agility of hands and feet. Gomda climbed on the last one and hung by an arm from one of the heavier branches. “I would fly through these treetops on my mother’s belly. As young gibbons we played games of speed and long jump from branch to branch.” He paused and gazed somewhere far away. “Our community thrived in these trees, where we nested and watched over each other.” Takoda looked at Gomda with sadness and compassion. “I know. I am sorry. They were once glad homes and safe shelter.” They sat down in their place at the outer edge between the old yew and the Circle, taking refreshment. A dowager of the Eluwilussit made her way to them. “The filling of the tanks needs time, but all will be ready by tomorrow,” she informed them. “Thank you, my lady,” Takoda replied and bowed his head to her. She and Takoda looked at each other. “We have seen so much, you and I, many changes and much loss,” she asserted. “But this I did not expect.” “Nor I,” was his quiet response. She turned to go, then turned her majestic head to him. “There is no other way?!” Whether a question or statement was unclear, even to herself perhaps. “I am afraid,” said Takodo in his slow, methodical manner, “there is not.” She turned back to continue her work. Takoda and Gomda ate in silence.
The gorillas arrived on the morning of the next day. Gaho, who was the oldest female and their spokesperson, would need the day in-between to rest. Takoda was glad to see them. Despite their intimidating appearance, he knew they were playful, quiet and peace loving. Gaho, like himself, had known freedom and captivity – her perspective would be very welcome. The gorilla delegation chose a well-shaded place just off the tree area and created a soft nest of the provided leaves and brush for her comfort.
Throughout the day, the smaller mammals and rodents arrived, all eager to find a safe place on the bleachers before the large cats and birds showed up. Despite the agreement, they were distrustful. The deep-seated survival instincts of predator and prey filled them all. Gomda watched as they ruffled and rustled about, thinking how glad he was he could navigate the trees, until the sobering thought came to him – it had not saved his family, either.
Toward dusk, the bird delegations came, working very hard to avoid each other’s flight path, whether solitary representatives like the eagle and the owl, or the flocks as collective representatives, as the starlings. The need to be civil was evident to them all, a consensus of spirit and will. Only through solidarity can their goal be reached. They spread themselves through the trees, the larger birds high above, making the rodents somewhat uneasy, and the smaller ones finding refuge in the deep recesses of branches and leaves. They did their best to allow each other the space and comfort they needed.
Takoda and Gomda greeted all the groups as they came, feeling glad that, so far so good, everyone maintained the proper order. No one was frightened of the two of them, they were the most trusted among creatures……and because neither were true meat eaters. So, when they bid them all to settle down for the night since no others were expected before the morning, the delegations did so in relative confidence. Relative, but not without sentries. They could not, and had no mind, to free themselves from this custom. Security was security. And it was programmed into their DNA to keep their guard up.
Early the following morning, they were all awakened by the slow onslaught of rumbling in the ground. The starlings chattered and chirped incoherently, while the eagle and owl flew off to investigate. The small ground creatures scurried this way and that, then suddenly suspended in mid-motion, repeating this pattern over and over. They were overcome with panic. There was no place to hide. Gomda jumped instinctively on Takoda’s shell and onto a yew tree, the highest point in the near vicinity. Takoda looked at the returning eagle, who cawed gently. After a moment, he said, “The buffalo are here, together with the gazelle and deer, who traveled with them for protection. They do not stampede. To assure punctuality they traveled here at a great speed, which they now reduce to a slow march.” The ground gradually stopped shaking. Gomda climbed down carefully and all looked to the opening, anxious and still, like a moment frozen in time. A broad shadow emerged and the buffalo appeared, the Bidzill in the lead, entering one by one, mingled with the gazelle and deer. They trod as lightly as they could to the plains area, and the entire stadium breathed out in gratitude.
“Have a care!” screeched the owl. “The cats are just behind them!” The momentary reprieve ended, and panic ensued once again. Gomda spoke under his breath to Takoda. “They are afraid the Lallo and Lomahongva will not keep their word……and so am I!” Takoda watched the lion and leopard as they approached. “They are very quiet, aren’t they?” he said uneasily. He was not afraid of them. There was so much more to be frightened of. But their presence did require…..caution. As the felines passed, walking purposely toward the Circle of Conciliation, the hooved creatures backed away as far as they could, knowing that if an attack came, there was nothing to be done. Takoda waited unmoving as they silently approached. Just about two feet from the front opening into the Circle, they veered off to Takoda’s left, and settled themselves near the tanks of water. An obvious display, thought Takoda, and effective.
The last to come were the sea creatures and the domestics. This was the last task of the Eluwilussit. They accompanied the farm and pet animals into their stalls- some of whom were so terrified, they were visibly shaking. It was a testament to their courage that they appeared at all. The gates were closed, and the guardian elephants went to assist their clansmen in bringing the wagons in with the whales and dolphins and, surprisingly, a few fish, who didn’t feel it was proper to be left out. They were right, of course. The air breathers would be the spokespeople for the purpose of communication, but they had the right of attendance, of a voice and a vote.
It was now midday. They would eat and rest, and begin the meeting in the late afternoon, a time compromise between the night creatures and those that lived their lives in the daylight. They had all agreed, they would settle this by the last lingering light of dusk.
„The Divine Comedy would have been a sensational work of art, if Dante had not been in hell but in a Concentration Camp“ H. Szuman
Fall 2009. It was our graduation trip, and my friends and I decided to take on the 17-hour train ride to Poland to spend a week in the beautiful city of Krakow. Krakow – what an amazing place to visit……the wind seems to carry a rush of magic - through the narrow alleys and over the cobble-stoned streets - with every breath it takes. A trumpet chimes in all four cardinal directions from the bell tower to mark the full hour and while jazz music in the cellar bars makes the ground beneath your feet vibrate in a pulsating beat, stories of enchanted pigeons that had once been knights take flight with each stroke of their wings. And, back then, you could buy a beer for like 50 cents, which made both our empty, young pockets and youthful hearts very happy.
But the main reason I chose Krakow over Vienna was the planned trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau on the third or fourth day.
Growing up in Germany there is no escaping our history … not any more … our parents' generation made sure of that. No hiding the truth, no faking the past … 6 Million Jews, 200,000 Roma, 250,000 people with disabilities, 70,000 criminal offenders and so-called a-socials, homosexuals, political opponents, prisoners of war … lives ... taken for an ideology, an idea and the megalomania of not just one man … but a complete nation.
Entering through that broad gate crowned with the well-known sign „ARBEIT MACHT FREI“ (work sets you free) and listening to our tour guide rattle on about the facts, it was hardly more than a kind of „seeing-the-textbook-in-real-life“ … there is an undeniable chilling energy, yes … but we already knew that feeling from Dachau, Jewish museums and various memorial sites.
So we chatted – how weird to think that these charming brick buildings had housed something so evil – remember that Holocaust survivor who came to talk in class that one time? That was intense, man! – Crazy to think all of this happened not even a century ago …
And then we entered one of those charming brick houses … thick silence hit us like a cement wall and our chatting was crushed by it's sudden force. The smell of something … so old ... it could only be dead … crept into our noses.
We are so used to perceiving the world with our eyes that when our other senses pick up on something first … we can't quite comprehend, can't quite grasp what it is we are to think or feel. All we knew was that something dreadful was coming and as soon as my eyes caught up with my other senses, my vision blurred in disbelief and yet I could see it as clearly as ever.
Behind glass, along a wall that seemed to go on for miles and miles, was a sea of grey, lifeless human hair, hair that some 65 years prior had been shaved off of the heads of living people.
From there we entered a room full of suitcases with the names of their previous owners still written on them in white letters; from there ... a room filled with shoes … a room with artificial legs and wooden crutches. With every barracks a new horror … reminders of what humans are capable of.
I remember exactly when the emotional dam I was trying to maintain came crashing down with a violent rush of tears that, for the rest of our stay, I was unable to contain … because my best friend lost it at the exact same moment. It was the eyeglass frames - golden colored frames whose lenses had been removed and that had been stacked together … thrown over each other like a metaphor for the dead bodies that had once been carelessly heaped to light a human bonfire… the vision of their owner's eyes stolen twice.
I don't know why the glasses had such an effect on us. Maybe because of the vulnerability they portrayed, maybe because it was the last strike after having seen all those other artifacts, maybe because nobody else seemed to pay as much attention to them, just like neighbours, friends and co-workers chose to look away back then … I don't know what it was … all I know is that for the rest of our tour through Auschwitz and Birkenau I was heartbroken. The only thing that made it bearable were my friends who … each in their own way … felt the same pain.
I remember walking through one of the smaller barracks that was plastered with black and white pictures of little children … the Jewish children that had been murdered on the same ground where we were standing. My friends and I stood close together, arm in arm, holding on to each other thinking of those young lost lives as we stood in silence in front of the „Black Wall” - the „Death Wall” - where the Nazis had shot deadly bullets through innocent bodies.
It was tough, it was painful, and my heart broke more times in that one day than it had the entire year. But the thing that completely numbed me … that I will never forget as long as I live … happened on our bus ride back to the City.
We had just spent hours walking through that massive graveyard … a graveyard that, like it or not, our ancestors dug … and all many of my classmates could talk about on the way back was how they couldn't wait to get back and take a nap, what they would have for dinner and how drunk they were planning to get that night. Sheer and utter indifference. No outrage, no discussion, no sadness … just stupid, superficial, millennial talk.
It wasn't until years later that I started to understand why they were able to detach themselves so much from what we had just seen. Not because, what I thought back then, they were cold-hearted people, but because of the slogan that hovers over our history: NEVER AGAIN!
We learn to remember but we are also lured into a false sense of security – it's history ... done … over … and it won't happen again.
I was born on the 27th of January, 1991, the 46th anniversary of the liberation of the Concentration Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Funny, when I tell people that, most of them react in a kind of „Oh man - I'm sorry for you“ way … I, myself, always thought it to be a positive thing.
Either way, this date naturally marks an important day for me, so this year instead of just celebrating my birthday I decided, in light of our work at the „Amnesty International Education Group“, to organize an event for the 74th year of liberation.
Honoring victims is remembering. Remembering is understanding one’s history. And understanding one’s history should mean: to try and learn from it.
But we have seen „Never Again” happen over and over again after the end of the Second World War. The genocides in China, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, the racism of segregation in the States and apartheid in South Africa, the religious discrimination in places like Burma, Ireland and many countries in the middle east and nationalistic, far-right politics have been gaining more and more popularity in the western world over the past years.
Honoring past victims is trying to prevent new victims. In order to do that, one must stop the oppressors; and to take action on anything, one must first understand who and what one is up against on the other side.
Something like 80% of gun deaths in African American communities are homicides. 80% of deaths by a gun in the white communities in the States are suicides. Girls and young women often express their inner pain through cutting themselves or succumbing to anorexia and bulimia, while boys and young men rather join gangs and meet on a field as hooligans to mindlessly beat the shit out of each other over their favorite soccer teams. Self-loathing and external wrath - flip sides of the same coin. The same number: violence! The same currency: hate!
Why do you join an extremist group? After all that we know, after all the world has seen, why would you still believe in such ideologies? What in the world would motivate you to live a life of hate? And how do you physically and mentally find the heart to change and leave that chapter of your life behind?
„Hurt people, hurt people“ Y. Berg
The opposite of hate is not love, but compassion. In June 2011, the „Summit Against Violent Extremism” invited former radicals from all walks of life to come together to try to find answers as to why they had joined - and why they had left - fanatic movements. There were former skinheads, white supremacists, radical Muslims, gang members, conservative priests … all coming together to seek understanding, find common ground and look for ways to prevent young people from following the same path.
What they found was, no matter how different the ideas, ideologies or methods of those organizations … the reasons to join them were the same: a sense of belonging, empowerment and solidarity by depicting and enforcing a notion of superiority over another race, religion or group.
And the reason for leaving? Receiving compassion from someone from whom they didn't think they deserved it.
The keynote speaker at our event in January was Tony McAleer, the board chair of Life After Hate, a North-American Exit Organisation that was founded after the summit in Dublin. I sent the organisation an Email request, not really expecting it to actually work out. Tony got in contact with me just a few days later and said he was happy to speak at our event. A former white supremacist himself, Tony's views and ideologies changed after he became a father and found himself obtaining unconditional love from his children, which he believed was a gift he did not deserve.
A few years ago, when Tony was already very active in his anti-fascism work, he was asked to join a documentary that was to be filmed in Auschwitz.
When I visited Auschwitz, I knew that, had I lived back then as a mixed-raced person, I could have been a victim, which is frightening.
Tony visited Auschwitz knowing that, had he lived back then at a certain point in his life, he would have been a Nazi, a Guard and a Murderer – which is absolutely devastating.
We all have things in our personal history that we are not proud of, things we would prefer to lock up, hide out of sight and never talk about again.
Imagine all of those skeletons, all of those hidden Pandora’s boxes crashing down on your chest with a force so hard you can hardly breathe.
Imagine having spent years of your life denying the Holocaust, claiming the numbers don't add up, insisting those children never existed, those suitcases were brought there by the Americans, the whole thing was set up by the Jews to claim some sort of world dominance …
And then imagine walking through Auschwitz, smelling the hair, seeing the smiling faces of murdered children, counting the numbers of artificial limbs, glasses and shoes …
And then imagine having to try to find a place in all that shame to forgive yourself.
Just like poverty is exploited by gang leaders in the black community, insecurities are exploited by the leaders of hate groups in the white community.
Shame is what drives people to hurt themselves and shame is what drives people to hurt others; shame is such an overwhelming emotion it needs some sort of outlet – it is so unbearable that you have to find a place to let it go ...
„Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and hoping someone else will die from it“ Unknown
Forgiving is not forgetting – but sometimes forgiveness can feel like betrayal. - How can you forgive your partner for cheating on you? Have you no respect for yourself? How can you forgive that hit and runner for killing your child? Have you no respect for their memory?
You might be able to separate the person from the ideology, but where do you draw the line separating people from their actions? Where does a failed system end and personal accountability start? We tend to alienate those with whom we don't agree. We mark them as stupid, uneducated or just plain bad people and leave it at that.
Many white nationalists do not stay extremists for their entire lives because, as Tony put it, it is very exhausting to live in hate and anger all the time. So I guess the real question is, who are you hurting in the end and how many friends instead of enemies could you make by just simply listening and trying to find the source of pain behind the words? I'm not gonna lie ... it is hard and it is a challenge, and being the emotionally driven person that I am, I'm not sure I am able to do it.
But I will try!
A coin will never see its own flip side … so the only way is to melt it ... brake down those barriers and cross those borders ... seek those who are and think differently ... have a discussion … and then we'll go on from there. There is always more to a person's story, than what we first perceive … we all have room for improvement … and opinions can change, if you give them space to do so.
I am sitting here at the window of my writing room looking into the garden behind my house and the fields beyond. Everything is snow-covered, soft to my eyes….a fog has settled all around, just barely letting the sun show itself. The light appears curtained and mellowed, yet quietly brilliant. It hurts to look directly toward the sun, but the scene in all its facets is too compelling – the snow, the fog, the light. A small flock of birds has landed on the limbs of the smallest tree in the garden, which miraculously still has apples hanging precariously from its branches. The birds begin to feed, and I wonder that it’s not too cold for them. They share, they argue, they chase each other away from prized nibblings. They fly periodically to the next tree, which is empty, probably to burp and digest a bit before they return to the feast. They peck at the ground under the tree, digging through the snow, trying to get at, I assume, the apples that fell off the tree in the fall that we had not bothered to pick up. Those must surely be frozen, I ponder, even if the ones still hanging are not. But….a meal is a meal, I suppose. I am happy that our garden can provide at least one winter’s fare.
Suddenly, as if of one mind, or through some telepathic communication, or some verbal signal I can’t hear through my window, and certainly could not interpret if I had, they rise up from the ground and the trees in unison, and in a matter of a seconds are in a clearly previously planned formation, flying into the cluster of trees nearby. What happened? Were they frightened off? Did they sense my attention, scoff at it, and seek privacy elsewhere? They vanish so quickly, in the blink of an eye, and the garden is suddenly still. I am sure they can’t have flown off anywhere else, I would have seen them. Indeed, I am sure they are still somewhere in the depths of that cluster of trees just off from the garden. I look, but for the moment they are hidden from my curious eyes.
I turn my attention back to the now quiet garden. It feels idyllic and I am taken once again with the covering of snow. There are 5 fruit trees that stand somewhat at a distance from one another, and I notice that under each one the snow is discolored, and interestingly, these spots coordinate with and reflect the shape of the tree itself. It finally occurs to me that that unattractive brown tint, which I had failed to see before, is made from the fallen apples that the birds peck at so enthusiastically. Having lost their arboreal lifeline, those released and unattended apples molded as they lay there during the fall and early winter months, and their evidently delectable (the voracious manner in which the birds gobble them up substantiate this truth) secreting juices have permeated the liquid snow, displaying a visual signal to hungry creatures passing by - here is something to satisfy your appetite. No doubt, they would laugh at my slow powers of observation in detecting such an important detail. They would say, she could never survive the winter, certainly not alone. I have to smile, myself. My education would prove to be so useless. I notice a bird hopping on the ground, digging once more. One by one, more return, but not yet the flock in full numbers. It’s less crowded now, less jostling and a much calmer nibble and chatter repast.
All this time, a lone fly and a solitary ladybug have accompanied me in my reverie at the window. The fly cannot seem to fly longer than 2 seconds at a time, which looks more like a futile long jump in the air than anything resembling flight. The ladybug has been crawling along the window pane, seemingly looking diligently for something, probably an exit. Whether the ladybug can survive till spring, I don’t know, but I am sure the fly will not. If I put it outside, the cold will be its undoing. If it stays in, hunger will be its demise. I could feed it, but I’m not going to feed a fly. I have no wish to be a monster – God’s creatures and all that – but my decision stands. The ladybug seems to have stopped her search and found a comfortable place on the wooden frame of the window…..or maybe it’s a dead end. Anyway, I won’t feed her either, but I won’t bother her. The fly has disappeared and, I presume, gone to its fate. There is an absurd twinge of guilt.
My attention turns again to the garden, the snow, the fog, the trees and the birds. Many more are back but much less rapacious than before. It is more of a tea time atmosphere – a nibble here, a chirp and chatter there, a short flight to the neighboring tree and return for another nibble. The fog has further lifted and the sun has completely disappeared, making the day grey and dismal as is typical in winter. Suddenly, wafts of snow are falling off the branches of a tree in the cluster off to the side. There is no wind, so something must be milling around in the inner depths nearest the trunk. Then I see it, a smaller bird, about half the size of those feeding, flies high above the apple tree and settles on one of the highest branches on one of the tallest trees in the cluster. And there is another…and another. Are they hungry, as well? Do they wish to enjoy the frozen fruit, seeing this special tree as a happy, unexpected delicacy? Will the larger birds share? Will they not? Are all species as selfish and self-serving as humans? Whatever the answers might be, the little birds, though they remain at a distance, don’t give up. They stay aloft, flying back and forth. But it appears to me, they wait patiently for their chance.
Since I know nothing about birds, except that they fly and eat moldy, frozen apples, I wonder what their custom is. Will they migrate further south, which I recommend, or will they bear out the winter here, in which case they are welcome to all the apples they can find. I personally don’t mind the cold, but the dark shadowy days of the winter season are like tentacles that tear your sanity out of your brain, whooshing away with it while you writhe on the floor begging for sunlight or death – or at least an induced coma until spring finally comes again.
But I digress. The scene outside my window is lovely, and at moments, even breathtaking. I have never lived in such beauty before. The trees of the forest across the way and behind the field are a deep blue-black hue streaked and fringed with silvery snow, giving the impression that a magical world hides just on the other side. I look out at the fields and scattered houses, and it is a still life in real time. I see the curves and twists of the trees, their branches reaching and bending as if secretly photographed in the middle of an ancient dance. On the far hill, the fog has further lifted and a hint of blue merges into the grey, softening the contours of those trees to indistinct, ghostly elements of an impressionistic painting. As the mists rise further, a hint of billowy, whitish clouds begins to fill the sky and the trees come into sharp focus against the brightening firmament. So much to see in a matter of minutes and hours, over the course of only one short day.
It is 2019, and I have now seen 65 (don’t tell anybody) New Year’s come and go. I’ve made more resolutions than I care to remember and held on to less than I care to admit. The fervent promises of no chocolate, less alcohol, more streamlined diet and so on, are not the stuff successful resolutions are made of. They require another breed of commitment. It is those resolutions that demand my time and work, that call for my willingness to find a deeper awareness, that challenge me to see myself in all my glories and traumas, my blunders and truths, and work on it all, one step at a time, without pretense, that are my best successes. So this year, I challenge myself to open my eyes……to stop, to look and to see – to see the snow and the blue/grey of the misty sky, to see the ladybug and the dancing trees, to see the flock of birds, confident and safe in their family unit, and to see the little bird, wary and wishing for its place at the tree. To see what is here and what passes through. To see where I am and what is around me in any given moment. To see what is on the hill and what is beyond the forest. To see the lifting of the fog and the breaking through of the sun. And if I can see all that, maybe I will be able to see myself.
A small bird has dared to come closer to the apple tree. He sits on the low branch of another tree just a small distance away. The others must know he is there. He looks, and he waits. Suddenly, he flutters his wings, lifts himself off the branch and dives to the ground below the apple tree. Another little bird, just like him, joins him, and I watch and wait….to see what will happen. The two little birds begin to peck at the ground and eat….the others do not chase them away. After a few minutes, they dare to fly up to a branch where a succulent apple still hangs there on the tree. The larger birds continue eating, uninterrupted, unconcerned. I find myself feeling glad. All is well. They have been accepted at the feast. They have been welcomed. And so, like their larger cousins, they nibble and chatter, change to a new branch and nibble and chatter again and again. There is enough for all to fill up on and enjoy. There is good will and friendship at the tree. There is harmony in the garden…….and it is beautiful.
Today. This day. The present day. Today. Oggi ... Aujourd'hui … Hoy. Just another day. 24 hours. 1440 minutes. 86400 seconds. A whole cycle of the sun rising, moving across the horizon and setting on the other side. Another number to cross off the calendar. Today. Is one of the days … I feel a fly was more productive than I was. Seriously, not kidding! That fly actually managed to hatch, live through childhood, undergo puberty, reproduce, age and die and in the same time that I managed to decide what I want to eat for dinner. Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit … it wasn't quite that bad … was it? I mentally retrieve my steps … I woke up, had breakfast, got dressed, was ready to roll … lost my focus for two seconds … and the next thing I know … the neighbors in the house across the street have switched their lights back on, the clock has effortlessly skipped 6 hours ahead and I have accomplished absolutely nothing!
Okay … no need to panic … I still have a few hours left before I need to go back to bed in order to get those 8 hours of sleep, which I just saw in a Facebook Feed Video, by a professor of neuroscience and psychology, is very important because the mind starts shutting down after 16 hours and fails to make new memories so you end up feeling like you're amnesic, as your body has no chance to rid itself of that toxic protein beta amyloid that is associated with Alzheimer's and your immune system starts ceasing operation reducing anti-cancer fighting immune cells and cardiovascular stress relief … and I really don't wanna die of a heart-stroke-dementia-cancer-attack when I'm 33! But I also really don't want to tell my colleagues at work tomorrow that the most exciting thing that happened to me today was the 2 for 1 chicken sale I got for lunch!
News! I could watch the news! Keep myself informed … stay up to date with events happening around the world … but hearing about all the shitty things that go on everywhere just makes me feel really mad and sad and small and insignificant and powerless and I don't have the time to pick myself up and fight the system right now!
Read a book! Not really an option … I will for sure get caught up in the story and then spend the rest of the day reading … losing even more time.
We might need something around the house? I could go shopping! Easy, just put on shoes and a coat and decide where to go to get what .. and then they might not have it in stock … so I have to go to another store and before you know it, I will have tracked down 5 stores and accumulated a shitload of junk, still missing the one thing I initially left the house for. Might as well order online and save myself the trouble! But I am trying to boycott online-corporate-monopolies … that's right, fighting the system!
Oh .. well look at that … I just spent the last hour trying to decide how to best spend the little remaining time I have left.
Be creative! That's it! Do some work! Yes! I sit down at my computer and start writing:
A Crow's Diary,
Flew in a circle three times today. Then sat down on a branch counting gusts of wind. The crow from the neighboring nest came to join me after the 43rd gust and sat down on the branch beneath me. She crowed. Three times. Then I crowed back. Four times. Then we were silent. For 26 wind-gusts.
Flew down onto the Concrete today and nibbled on an old piece of bread. With cheese. Wasn't good. Ate up all the crumbs anyway. Jumped down a few stairs after that. One by one. Flew off as a human approached.
Had a very lively conversation with a seagull today. Talked to a squirrel after that ... and then a skunk later on.
Okay … these lines are either mind-blowingly brilliant - or the biggest rubbish I have ever written! I delete the last 45 minutes of work.
Why don't I just listen to some music, take a bath, relax and recharge my battery so I am fresh and awake and can be more productive tomorrow … shit … I already did that yesterday!
I'm starting to panic! It's 7 o'clock and I have yet to find an activity that will save my day and not leave me feeling like a useless chunk of human existence … a dreamer … who dreams her life away … wasn't that an Ozzy Osbourne song? No – stop – stay focused!
I start making dinner, end up scrubbing the sink in the bathroom instead, decide to sort out the laundry, get bored, so I look up new job opportunities online … and find myself an hour later standing in a messy pile of dirty underwear, toothbrushes, marinated beef and uncooked pieces of broccoli that will take me an hour to organize!
I grab „Successful Time Management for Dummies“ from the shelf … replace it with my „How to Stay Present“ handbook … forget what I was reading when my phone rings … check my WhatsApp messages … scroll through people's new profile pictures (because I swore to myself not to waste my time mindlessly scrawling through Instagram posts anymore) and discover that I have lost another hour … still standing in front of a pile of 4 unfinished chores and not one bit happier about my life. I consider crying but reconsider, as this outburst of emotions would probably last about half an hour … HALF AN HOUR OF MY LIFE THAT I DO NOT HAVE! … and choose to go for a walk in the dark instead.You can't go wrong with fresh air and exercise is never a waste of time. The world always seems better after a nice walk. It's like the air not only cleanses your lungs but also cleans the space in your head. Gives your brain room to breathe … to contemplate about life, love, the future … isn't that funny though? How everything is always about the future? We learn to mind our manners at home, so we don't make fools of ourselves in kindergarten, we go to kindergarten to get used to being around other kids in school, school prepares us for college, college prepares us for work, we work our asses off to get a good pension plan and spend the last years of our lives recovering from the strains of years and years of preparation for this moment. But you know what they say: You can make plans, but everything will turn out differently in the end anyway. The only thing you know will happen for certain is that you will inevitably die … so really from the day we are born … we just prepare to die. I try not to lose myself in a pseudo-philosophical existential crisis and direct my attention to a duck that just crossed my path. Lucky girl! No worries in the world. No goal to reach, no need to prove herself. And the worst part is … she doesn't even know how lucky she is!
I sit down on a bench about to surrender to the defeat that today is just another one of those days as it starts to rain. Guess that's what you call shit out of luck! I get back up and walk home. I pull my coat tighter around my body and quicken my pace as the drops start getting heavier and heavier.
I catch up with a man in a wheelchair fighting his way up the hill. I stop to offer him my assistance and push him the rest of the way … alright, at least I've done my good deed for the day … say goodbye and run back home.
As I enter my apartment ... the still unfinished tasks, the empty screen on my laptop and sniggering hands on the clock staring me in the face ... I take a moment to be … just be … and remind myself that not everything has to be spectacular … that this confusion is a necessary evil … that these days are a learning process … and that time is only wasted when I tell myself that it is.
I let the beef, the toothbrushes and the pile of clothes be – wasn't that a Beatles' song? - give the clock a sovereign wink …. try to make the best of this day – and write … this.
People are curvatures. That’s the beauty of the human animal. It is what separates us, not from what lies “below” us on the evolutionary scale, but from the future creatures we ourselves are today creating, who, according to certain knowledgeable oracles, may one day surpass us, replace us and even enslave us. As of now, the rudimentary mind of the pre-robotic electro-brains of today coerces us to follow straight lines to our perceived destination - therein lies speed, focus and clear choices. And this is good, so we are told. And we buy into it. Nonetheless, this is not who humans are. We are nuanced and many-layered. We meander through landscapes sometimes not going anywhere in particular. We reflect, make decisions, and change our minds along our way. We gather stuff and nonsense as we go, each according to his or her own desires. We fantasize and speculate. We stop to smell the flowers and look at our reflection in still waters. Speed and exactness are useless to us without these “ineffectual diversions”.
But, admittedly, our curvature character is also our bane, sometimes leading us far astray and, in the process, making us forget what we should remember, impelling us to interpret our surroundings with half-recollections and snapshot knowledge, confusing us into believing our short-sighted assumptions are universal truths. But…..is that a reason to follow the straight line? I say, no!
As we navigate these digital systems in their (and our) baby stages, we are excited by their vastness and in awe of how close the world suddenly seems to be. It’s a space mountain* of twinkling info-lights that appear out of what was once a vast darkness. On this thrilling ride, besieged with the constant buzz of information and input, the temptation to allow ourselves to be passively hurtled along and lulled into inaction, is strong….and imperceptible. But once we have sensed the danger, we wrestle with it for control. Whether we succeed, whether we can succeed, whether we need to succeed, is now up for discussion. If we look at it as a generational divide (if we may be allowed a moment of gross generalization) - those who are growing up with this very new and imposing technology, and those who knew the world without it - the debate is predictable. The younger ones navigate the systems with more ease, incorporating each advancement as a natural order of things. The older ones have to work at it in a readjustment process, often wondering why the next step is at all necessary. The younger ones encourage the older ones to see how advantageous each improvement is to the quality of life while the older ones implore the younger ones to remain vigilant as to what they are giving up. How do we answer one another, and where are the lines to be drawn?
I am a quantum social media, digital junkie. I didn’t see it coming. Tomorrow, I have promised myself, I will drill it down to a bare minimum. Actually, it started off well-enough with quite noble intentions. I accepted the new forms and recognized the many gains made from them. I wanted to, one, inform myself, understand more about the current waves of thought and movement in the world. I live in a foreign culture and can read the newspaper, listen to the radio, turn on the tv, and understand the words. But the process of comprehension and analysis was agonizingly slow, and daily life left no time. The digital world offered me the chance to see and listen to news media in my own native tongue and cultural context. My second objective was to rediscover my home, the political and social mindset of the day, what had changed and what remained as I had always known it. The third was the strongest motivation, easy access to my family.
Somewhere along the line, the information never seemed to be enough. I needed just one fact more, one more detail of the story, one more trusted opinion on the subject. Suddenly, it wasn’t sufficient to know about my home town alone. I had to read about the surrounding area, the other cities in proximity and then the next county, the next state and further and further away, like an endless ripple on a boundless ocean. What photo had I missed? What celebration? What announcement? What funny comment in reference to our family? My curvatures were being whipped around left and right until they screeched and stiffened, and I was being led in a straight line to whatever the calculating server thought I wanted and needed to know. And I let it happen. I was imperceptibly metamorphosing, gathering and storing information purely for its own sake, doing nothing with it, becoming like the ravenous machine that held my free time hostage. It had decided who I was and kept me on that narrow road, until that’s what I was becoming. I was forgetting to stop and look at myself in still waters. I didn’t remember that I could change my mind and test a new direction. I stopped searching for myself, the parts I knew that were hidden somewhere and the parts I didn’t yet know about. I stopped gathering the stuff and nonsense that made me edgy, unpredictable and nuanced, that had no logic for anyone but me. I stopped sitting at my piano and feeling my fingers find the keys to play the beautiful music of Ravel, Debussy and Gershwin. I stopped writing with any regularity, telling the wild stories that played themselves out in my head. I stopped feeling the potential of what could still be while I am still breathing.
We need no justification to demand space for personal growth. The “why we want it”, is irrelevant. It is our birthright, the legacy we received at our inception, the gift of gifts from whatever Creator or concept we believe in. If we continue to accept every upgrade that comes along, to thoughtlessly incorporate any advancement without asking the question, “what happens to me if I use it?”, we will freeze in a somnabulistic hibernation and the only ones with any viable creativity left will be those who design the advancing stages of electro-brain’s development, who will earn their fortunes, until they themselves become substandard to their own handiwork, then obsolete.
The human animal has only begun to discover the undiscovered in our amazing bodies and our deepest selves, and there is presumably much, much more. Electro-brain can help us, to be sure, if we don’t give it all our problems to solve, all our tasks to complete, all our decisions to be made; if we don’t give it all our thoughts to process, our riddles to unravel and our mysteries to solve. If we allow our potential to be converted into its potential, our knowledge to be sucked into its brain and out of ours, reducing ourselves to half-recollections and snapshot knowledge , forgetting what we should remember, and believing only in our short-sighted assumptions, we will end up serving it, and it will be the one with the beauty of curvature, and we will have the limited life of the straight line.
*Reference to Disneyworld’s rollercoaster
Dearly Beloved … we are gathered here today to bid farewell to our confidant, companion and comrade. A partner who stuck with us through all aspects of life. An ally who was there for us, not only during bad times, but also during the good! Pal, Mate, Friend … we gave him many names.
The time has come to say our goodbyes, so longs and adieus … no „see you soon“, for he shall not return! Weep, my friends, weep! For these tears are long overdue! Let us take a moment to acknowledge his passing. May he find peace in his new home and stay wherever the hell that might be! We all knew him. Some well, some very well, some just casually. But if these tears of joy tell me anything … it is that he will not be missed! Whether your parents introduced you to him, or a friend, a partner or whether you happened to find him yourself in the vast depths of this malfunctioning machine we call society, take comfort … for he is gone!
I remember our first encounter as if it were yesterday! I was seven years of age. I was, even if I do say so myself, a bright, but kind of shy, young girl. I loved to sing. I would happily chirp and chant wherever I went - at home, in school, with my friends, at the playground, before going to bed. No wonder my 2nd grade teacher grasped the opportunity to give me the big solo in our first „Puppets Elementary School Choir” concert. I was ecstatic! I practiced day in and day out. The big day came, and I was ready! Oh, was I ready! I had my purple dress, my pink shoes, my white lace socks, a ribbon in my hair and a microphone in hand. I climbed on stage, looked straight into the audience … and there he was! Sitting there quietly, inconspicuously, perfectly calm, staring me right in the face as if he had been waiting there all evening, just for me. My pulse raged! My hands trembled! My throat tied up! And what should have been the grand debut of a lifelong career resulted in the greatest disaster that crushed my poor little heart.
From that moment on, he was my shadow. No matter what, or where, or how, or who, or when, I could always count on him to be there! So clingy! Like those sticky plants that grow on the sidewalk that magically find their way on to your clothes and you can't get them off. He would just creep up on me out of nowhere!
Like this one time, I went out to buy a set of new clothes. I was fed up with everything I had hanging in my closet and decided to treat myself to something nice! My favorite department store had a sale and I found a beautiful turquoise dress in my size! I ran into the changing room and … no way! It fit! It was cheap, it was comfortable, it looked good! The perfect purchase!
„Are you sure about that?“ said the renowned voice behind my back! What the … ? I told him to wait outside … at least until I left the shop … how did he even get in here? „Yes!“ I answered trying to uphold my fake self-confidence. „I like it!“ He gave me that „Okay, if you say so ...“-look and let his gaze wander across the little cubicle … in that if-you-don't-want-my-opinion-fine manner! I tried to ignore him, but his presence was undeniable … whistling in my ear, bouncing back and forth on his feet. „Fine!“ I gave up. “What's wrong with it?“ Oh, that fat smile I hated so much! „Well,“ he said „For one, it is way too short! Do you really want people to see those bruised knees of yours? And you know your ankles look fat in those new shoes! What would that neckline do for you anyway? You call those molehills breasts? You'll be the laughing stock of the cleavage club! And that color looks horrible on you.“ „I like it“, I murmured. He cringed his nose. „No, no! You need something more subtle. Like black. Black is good!“
Dearly Beloved … what was a girl to do? Something, that was certain … but what? Every time I thought I had gotten rid of him, he came back like a boomerang … always returning, no matter how far I threw, piercing the air, aiming for the head, the heart, the gut.
Whenever I applied for a new job: „Don't do it! You're no good at this!“ Whenever I had troubles at my current job: „Like I said, you're no good at this!“ On my way to meet friends: „You do know, you are no fun, right?“ While getting ready to go on a date: „You better not kiss him! You'll embarrass yourself.“ New boyfriend: „He's just seeing you, because he pities you!“ After a break-up: „Told ya!“ Nagging, nagging, nagging! Didn't you? Didn't you, old friend? Snake in my garden of Eden! Siren hiding in the waves of my sea. Making me fall like I flew too close to the sun, making me freeze like a Pillar of Salt. No matter how much I braced myself, you would find my soft spot, shoot your arrow and take me down! Through purgatory, to the depths of the Underworld, where I was to wallow in Self-Pity for the rest of my life!
Self-Doubt … you have been a hell of a companion! I could never rely on any of my emotions … Sadness would come and go, Happiness dropped by once in a while, Fear sometimes came with you to visit me and Anger, well, I would say we are remote acquaintances. But you … you were always there for me! So it is with but a hint of nostalgia that I let you go! Don't get me wrong … I couldn't wait for you to leave! People have done some pretty shitty things - gone in wrong directions, hurt many lives trying to prove you wrong! But I have grown so accustomed to you that I can't imagine what will happen now that you aren't there to hold me back!
I can't help but wonder what could have been if I hadn't met you! I would probably be a successful singer by now … I would have killed it that summer wearing the dress! I would have had a better life! We all would have had a better life, if Self-Doubt hadn't come into our homes and poisoned our minds! You would have gotten that promotion, he would have kept that girlfriend, they would have better ties with their family and friends … but, Dearly Beloved the good news it … it is not too late!
It might not be that promotion, but you can climb another ladder! It might not be that girlfriend, but love will find him again! And real family bonds never break, and true friends always give, not one, but a dozen last chances.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Dearly Beloved … let's bury this bastard! Let's rid ourselves of this wolf in sheep's clothing, this fake monster who pretends to be our friend! Whom we have called Pal, Mate and Friend simply because he happened to be around; who we run to every time we feel satisfaction, because we cannot stand to be happy; who we seek advice from whenever we really want to, but don't dare make the decision ourselves; to whom we have given so much power because someone, at some point, said something that hurt us.
So what your hair isn't blond and perfectly straight? Chances are there are people out there who love bushy, brown curls … and if they don't … screw'em! So what you failed your last exam? People need to see that education is more than just a piece of paper stating you can learn A – Z by heart and there are many different ways of being intelligent … and if they don't … screw'em. So what you wear glasses, your teeth aren't straight, you have an accent, your skin is dark, your skin is light, your eyes are narrow, you like men, you like women, you're no Size 0, you're no muscleman, you have a penis but don't want it, you have breasts but wear your hair short … if people can't deal with you being different screw them! Not you! And screw you, Self-Doubt, for taking hold of so many wonderful people, crushing so much potential and creating so much inner chaos!
Dearly beloved … we have a choice. We had a choice yesterday, we have a choice today and we will have a choice tomorrow! He will try to arise from his grave. Do not ignore him! Do not suppress him! Simply let him pass by until he grows tired of your indifference and decides to leave. And we will walk without lowering our gaze, and we will talk without softening our voice, and we will dance like no one is watching, sing like our life depended on it and be the fullest version of „Me“ „Myself“ and „I“ there has ever been.
The air was thick. Thick, hot and full of a black dust. You could almost touch it. He tasted it on his tongue, spitting it out in wads onto the dirt floor. He was a young man of 33, but he no longer felt young. He felt worn out and used up. His skin was white, but the dust covering every inch of his face, arms and chest gave his skin an odd grey hue. The tunnels themselves were pitch black. Once you were down in the mine, the light of day was left behind, and the only light was the candle you brought with you. Buy it yourself and don’t forget it. He hated the dark, but he’d learned to accept it and live with it long ago. The holes they worked in, held up by wooden beams that could give way if someone bumped them too hard, were where they spent most of their days and sometimes half the night if their quota wasn’t reached. If he didn’t control his imagination, it seemed the walls closed in on him as the hours wore on. He picked up his pickaxe and swung, gouging it into the wall. He hoped it would not collapse on him – another fear! Ten months ago, he had heard the “Mother”* speak. She had said they were cowards if they didn’t stand up for themselves. She was right, though he hadn’t felt like a coward. You couldn’t do this job if you didn’t get the better of your fear. But something did scare him – starvation. They couldn’t eat if they didn’t buy at the company store-they only had the useless mine currency. And he didn’t know how to do anything else. He was scared of one of them being sick with nowhere to go, watching his family die one by one. But he had listened to “Mother”, and she was right about something else. They were hardly any better off now – his wife had miscarried 2 babies working these mines. His oldest boy, only 13, had already lost 3 fingers. And now, as of 6 months ago, his 9-year-old worked the tunnels. ‘We need the small ones,’ the boss had said. ‘The demand is getting higher,’ he had said, ‘and if we don’t fill it, somebody else will.’ In the past 18 months there had been 2 explosions and a bad cave-in. 30 men dead, 2 women and 8 children. After the last explosion, they organized and went on strike. That’s when the bosses brought in the militia and they were beat so badly they couldn’t work for days. And then came the strike-breakers, the blacks from further down south. He knew somewhere inside, they were not to blame. They didn’t have anything, either, and had probably heard the same promises he had - a good, solid job. But he had risked everything and saw himself losing it all. When they came, the strike lost its leverage. So he turned his anger onto them. They had stolen the jobs and the chance to make the mines safer, to stop them making the children work, and to earn a wage with dignity – that’s the word “Mother” had used. And now, nothing had changed. And his two young sons were slaving in the mine, just like him. He looked over as the children were brought down from the surface and he watched now as his youngest was lowered down the long shaft in the corner, into the narrow tunnels below. He knew the boy was scared and tired. He came home bruised every day, and it was only a matter of time before he lost a finger, an arm, or a leg. He decided then, the union had to be revived. It was dangerous, but it was dangerous not to. The owners were greedy and cruel, depraved in their hunger for the wealth they stole from all of them who worked the mines. His enemies were not the soot-covered men and women who scratched like he scratched to survive, but the fine-clothed men who took it all for themselves. He would fight, this promise he made to himself. That’s when he heard it, the explosion, muffled and expansive. Children’s cries followed the reverbing blast that shook the ground beneath them. He tried to distinguish is son’s voice…but couldn’t. The shaft was gone, but the screams persisted. They were not all dead! His heart beat into the center of his brain as he and others broke out of their momentary shock and jumped forward, digging with their bare hands. The cries continued, there was still a chance! He dug in desperation, ignoring how his hands bruised……and he prayed.
Jay was far down the road now, though how he knew that, he did not know. He took a deep breath, knowing this “phenomenon” was coming to an end, but it wasn’t over yet. Every part of him felt wounded, as if those lightning bolts had indeed pierced his entire body. He followed the path opening at his side……
She was dancing. The soft suede clothing moved gently over her as she swayed her balance from one foot to the other in turns and prances, her arms gathering and giving in gentle gestures, her knee-high leather shoes pliable over the ground beneath her feet. The smell of sage and cedar emanated from her wrinkled skin and her headdress of colored beads and the feathers that trailed down her braids attested to the serious nature of her ritual. She was strong and supple in her movements, despite her old age. Though she was alone on the plateau, she had no fear. Her spirit animals protected her, and her brother animals knew she meant no harm. Her ceremonial song of ancient origin traversed over her entire vocal range, and she sang it until her consciousness reached the gate of her ancestors. They greeted her spirit, and, in the stone circle, she sat on her fur mat and listened. Theirs was a language of currents and waves, and only in deep reverie could she understand them. “A people of broken spirit will come. With them they bring great change and great destruction. They have forgotten the sacred bond with earth, and lost faith in kinship. They will not see you, and in blindness they will try to obliterate you, our history and our knowledge. What will happen we cannot say, save you will need your strength. The earth and her children will be very sick. Remember…..protect, but do not hate. Defend……but do not revel in slaughter. Speak our ways, teach them, give them to all who will hear. Connect with other ways that are of the same mind. Stay the sacred path!” The ancestors became quiet and retreated. She gathered her things in the bundle, placed it on her back and looked to the horizon. The vast forest spread out below her, beautiful and enduring, and she tried to imagine how this land could be anything other than what it was at that moment. Though she knew it would not happen in her lifetime, she felt frightened for all her children. She thanked the ancestors for their wisdom and trust, asked forgiveness of the small creatures for her disturbance of their home, and set off down the mountain to her village.
The road was almost quiet now, a few lights dancing like leftover fireworks, still unpredictable but non-threatening. He was very tired, but no rest was granted. He must endure as those in his visions had endured. The open way was off to his left. He could continue walking straight, the road was free enough……but he was not, not yet. It was his choice now. He turned to the left.
He looked in the mirror of the medicine cabinet. He was a man with stringy hair, bloodshot eyes and ugly stubble on his face. He was not young, but not old either – just worn out and used up. He was…….his father. The cold water he splashed on his face made him groan, and without bothering to dry, he walked across the hall to his bedroom and sat on the bed. He hated this – the morning after. His vision blurry, his brains swimming in his head, his body like dead weight, his stomach like curdled milk. And now it was all too often. He stood up slowly, wanting to do…….something. But what? For a year now he hadn’t had a job. He sat back down on the bed and let a foul-smelling belch escape his mouth. A long while, he tried to focus on what he should do, as drops of water fell on his hands. God, I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean any of it! He had been angry about something and put his son, only eight years old, out of the house. He had hit him, he didn’t know how many times, and thrown him out. It had stormed badly, but he had been too drunk to notice. In his stupor, he had forgotten him and left him out all night. This morning, when he realized, he’d opened the door, and the boy, soaked and shivering, came in, put on his pajamas and laid in his bed. He stood up again, now knowing what he needed to do. He went to the kitchen and looked in the phone book. Family services. The boy’s Mom had been gone for 2 months. She wasn’t coming back, that was sure. He’s my son, but I can’t take care of him. There’s nothing I can do for him. He picked up the receiver and dialed the number. The woman on the other end asked him some questions, and after a brief conversation, said someone would come that day. He woke the boy up, told him to get dressed and pack his things. He was leaving. The boy kept asking questions. Why? Where? What was wrong? He was crying, kept saying he was sorry. But he didn’t answer the boy’s questions or even look at him. He closed the door to his son’s room, went into the kitchen, sat down and waited for somebody to come.
Jay, back in his body, watched the man fall. His arms hung at his sides, the gun loose in his hand. The adrenalin and the giddiness were gone, replaced - now his whole being was weighted down with sadness. He got it. These people were his past, his history, a part of him and his make-up. They lived in his DNA – they were imprinted on his being and he was a consequence of them and their memory. For him, they had awakened and given him the gift of sight - of hindsight and, surely their intention, of foresight. The empathy that had been blocked out of his consciousness and suppressed deep in him had returned in the space of a moment. The memories his ancestors had shared forced him to see and feel himself. Now he could feel beyond the anger and aggression, beyond the satisfaction of causing pain, to feel his own. What would happen next, his superiors would take him in, maybe fire him if the backlash was big enough, maybe just put him on leave. But in the end, nothing would happen. It never did. He would be free to live his life. But his illusions of power and supremacy were gone. He had been used, and he would not be used again. He had been trained to focus on the worst part of himself, the parts that were broken. He had been appropriated for someone else’s benefit. But now, the disappointment, the fear and the isolation that had made him vulnerable to control, were in his own hands. And he would find a new way. That young man was dead – a sorrowful, irreversible truth – and he would see him falling whenever he closed his eyes at night. He became conscious of the loud, angry voices yelling at him, so ready to take him down. Another officer came and took his gun, patted him on the back and led him to the squad car. As he lowered his head to climb in, he asked his ancestors for courage.
*Mary Harris “Mother” Jones