I began this blog to talk about the book, "Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype."
I wanted to tell a story about Polish-Jewish relations by way of an anecdote about running into my student Jorelle Baker on a snowy February road. In my head, this anecdote took about six sentences to tell.
On the page … it is much longer.
I know blog posts are supposed to be short.
That's why I've entitled this blog post "TL: DNR."
I can't afford wheels, so I walk. Rodgers and Hammerstein were right; you really never will walk alone. Nowadays, walkers everywhere, even in wooded spots, are accompanied by roadside garbage; previous passersby have flung their Dunkin' Donuts plastic cups out their car windows, no doubt certain that Dunkin' Donuts plastic cups, once flung out car windows, transmogrify into butterfly farts. Not so; someday our trashy indulgences will rise so high they smother us. Thanks to this roadside garbage, you always know who passed here, and what junk food hardened his arteries and pimpled his butt. You can't expect the garbage-tossers to treat the earth, or their own grandchildren who will inherit their garbage, better than they treat their own guts.
Along the road there are also, in spite of the garbage, flowers. "The garbage and the flowers": Leonard Cohen was right, as well. Walkers witness the confident blossoming of the first crocus from snow, the first yellow walls of strident forsythia, the first redbud, whose buds are really magenta, not red, and then lilacs, the sweetest scent, and then dogwood; walkers hear the first cicadas hammer, a message translated into human speech thus, both: "Summer is truly here" and "Summer is almost over." Walkers mark the first fired sassafras leaf to fall in early autumn, and follow the first snowflake on its slow trail down from downy early winter sky.
Walkers are also never alone because drivers get lost. The very same people who would not slow their cars if I were to stick out my thumb and attempt to hitchhike stop me as if I were a human Garmin Nuvi stationed roadside expressly for their service. "Miss, is this the way to ______?" I have a lousy sense of direction, but I have worked on it over the years exactly to be able to answer these demands, they come so frequently. I mark the name of the road I left, the road I'm walking to, exactly so that I can say, "No. Make a U turn. Go back five miles, turn left at the light on Broadway."
And you're never alone because of the ever-present birds who know who and where and what your intentions are better than you do. Existentially lost? You don't need a shrink. You need a bird.
Listen: by the species, and their calls, you know you are in a city, or a swamp, north or south of the equator, and what accompanies you. That jay screech records both the speed and the location of a stray cat you never even saw; the chickadees celebrate finds of grubs; hornbills never shut up on red laterite roads in central Africa; wagtails staff every Himalayan stream.
I once saw a turkey on Route 4 in urban Paterson, New Jersey, and a beaver outside a fourteen-story apartment complex in Bloomington, Indiana, where, on a busy street corner, I once, breathless, spied a fierce and hungry Cooper's hawk chase a terrified, but clever and rapid songbird through thick privet hedge. The birds were negotiating life and death in a ten foot square mathematical maze of manicured urban landscape.
Cooper's hawks' bodies and moves are sharp and slender, designed to catch and kill quick prey in dense foliage. But the songbird wanted to live, or maybe it just wanted to have some fun with this aerial Godzilla several times its size. Neither darted outside the confines of the ten feet the furious battery of their wings circumscribed. Neither "made a break for it" – to leave the hedge or cross the street or attempt to pass by mingling with a crowd of pedestrians. The songbird plunged into the hedge; the hawk followed; the songbird zigzagged; the hawk did the same; the songbird rose up; the hawk followed. And well-dressed businessmen and buskers and students walked hither and thither and never saw the twisting, feathered bullet of hawk, the beating, bright, shot of song, the attempted song-i-cide. I won't tell you who won. Go for a walk yourself and find out.
And the walker is never alone because of weather. Don't laugh. Weather is our most palpable, most voluble, most constant and all-enveloping companion. If you've ever been so untutored as to forget your water bottle on a dry-season road in equatorial Africa, or if you've climbed from rice paddies, palms and parrots up to eleven thousand feet in Asia and it begins to snow, you know exactly what I mean. Before you can do anything else you have to breathe, and there are winds that can and do, utterly without conscience, steal your breath away.
The first thing I want to know when I wake up in the morning is that day's weather. I've already got a good idea from yesterdays' signs: the ring around the sun, or the moon. Whether or not the moon has horns. A red moon. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors' delight. Leaves showing their backs. Mare's tails in the sky. The way the dirt smells. The way the wind tastes. The snow's crunch. Whether or not you can make snowballs from it. The size of the flakes; their speed. The seconds' count between lightening and thunder. What tale the wooly bear caterpillar's wool tells. Chimney smoke's path: "If smoke goes up the day is clear; if smoke goes down rain is near." Old folks' joints. Most terrifying: mammatus – yes, from the word for "breast" – mammatus clouds and green sky: a tornado; you shouldn't be looking at the sky, but ducking and covering!
Jesus knew; Luke, 12:54: "When you see clouds rising in the west you say immediately that it is going to rain – and so it does; and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south you say that it is going to be hot – and so it is." My favorite: morel mushrooms sprout at that moment in spring "when oak leaves are the size of a mouse's ear."
I know I live in the city because the local NPR station is contemptuous of weather reports, which they offer casually, as afterthoughts.
Not so in Indiana. I remember, year after year, the alarm: "The state's agricultural secretary reported today that the year has been exceptionally dry and there is worry that the corn and soybeans will not be able to weather the drought."
And then the next year the report would be, "This year's excessive rains have flooded the fields and many farmers worry that the corn and soybeans will not be able to survive the floods."
And the next year a new alarm would arise: "The weather has been perfect. Farmers worry that prices will sink so low that they won't be able to make a profit."
An Indiana joke: "Did you hear about the farmer who won the lottery? When asked what he would do with all the money, he replied, 'Oh, I guess I'll just keep farming until it's all gone.'"
People who don't walk ask me about it. A young African American man in a drugstore. "I've seen you walk. Is it a religious vow?" I should have said "Yes," and added some fascinating backstory.
People assume that cold is the walker's worst enemy. Au, contraire. My favorite: single-digit subzero, bright blue sky. Few people. Laughing kids testing out Christmas sleds. Snow crunches with acoustic perfection. Air in your lungs snaps like an invigorating menthol massage at an exclusive spa. Everything is so Currier and Ives, for that one day, before the temps climb upward, and the snow loses its voice, and the indulgent emerge from their hideouts, and dogs pee on the snow, and garbage, again, accumulates.
The scariest weather? Just between me and you? Cold rain. Yup. That same meteorological package delivered by every April, the month that T. S. Eliot dubbed the cruelest. I'll go farther – cold rain is scarier than black mambas or green mambas or even wolves.
Don't laugh. Hypothermia will down you, before the rare snakes you'd be lucky to so much as see, as they slither in fear away, scarier than the imagined roadside stalkers, hominid or canine. In 1980, sixteen shipwrecked Danish sailors were rescued after an hour and a half in North Sea water that was well above freezing. They thanked their rescuers, walked across the deck of the ship, reported below for hot drinks, and promptly died. One website claims that water sucks heat out of the human body twenty-six times faster than air. That number sounds made up, but I guarantee you that I will quote it, whenever anyone asks me the toughest weather condition I've faced.
There are those days best captured by that notorious sybarite, Henry David Thoreau: "This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore."
So, yes. I walk. In weather.
One dark day in February, 2010, I was walking along a tree-lined road frequented by turkeys, deer, and red-tailed hawks. It was a dark day in a dark winter. I have to wonder if statistics don't reflect that the shrouded sun of winter 2010 here in Jersey contributed to … something. If not an increase in the suicide rate, maybe there was a mass outbreak of Russian-novel-reading along the New Jersey Turnpike.
Snow was falling thick and fast. Life in a snow globe: I lose my tenuous hold on a sense of "up" and "down." There's something anti-gravity about a thick snowfall. A dark form approached: my student. He was hatless; snow sprinkled his fluffy black hair. He had his arms outstretched, as if to catch snowflakes on his dark sleeves, to check if there really are no two alike.
"You're not wearing a hat!"
I chided him. "You lose ninety percent of your heat through your head," another made up statistic.
But Jorelle seemed, really, to be enjoying the weather.
I liked that moment. Encountering another walker, someone else who is aware of weather.
Jorelle likes animals. One day, in reference to Freudian dream analysis, Jorelle told us one of his dreams. It was as thick with various fur and fins as the Bronx Zoo. Every student bears a gift without which the world would be less. I loved Jorelle's sense of whimsy.
That day a handful of students dramatized the Golem legend.
Rachel Greenspan was the impresario-cum-narrator and sound engineer: she played klezmer. Azur Sehovic, a Muslim from Bosnia, was Rabbi Loew; he wore a paper beard and a derby. Liz Bacon, despite her un-kosher last name, in her paper beard and yarmulke, handed in a Tony-award-worthy performance as "Unnamed Kabbalist # 2." Tall and strapping, Russian-American baseball player Scott Zirul was unmistakable as the Golem, especially since he had a sign on his chest. There were paper trees for the golem to tear up, and paper villagers for the golem to assault.
One day Azur – who had been so good as Rabbi Loew – and I were sitting in the office talking and Jorelle was sitting behind us, kneading a wad of freshly-purchased Silly Putty. When he arrived in class with the Silly Putty, someone made a crack, and Jorelle said, "Yeah, people tease me for it, but they all want to play with it!" Usually I try to finish up quickly with one student when another student is waiting, but Jorelle seemed so focused on his Silly Putty, I forgot about him, and focused on Azur.
Azur told me that one day his dad came home to his house with many windows. He wanted a smoke. He walked to the table to get his cigarettes and a man with an automatic weapon began to spray the house with gunfire. Azur's dad hid under the stairs for the next several hours. He had no weapon. Azur told me that, when running from Serbs, his dad favored cemeteries. He knew that the Serbs were too superstitious to pursue him there.
Once, when Azur was a kid, a child near him dropped an ice cream cone. Azur squatted down and began to eat it. His mother began to cry. Azur was hungry.
Around that same time, eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred by Serbs in Srebrenica.
Azur mentioned the name of his hometown to me. I turned from him, to the office computer, and did a Google image search of Azur's hometown's name. I expected to see photos of picturesque villages and mountains. Instead, there were photographs of crushed and bloodied corpses, some stretched out and arranged in rows on morgue slabs, some crumpled, random.
There was a photo of two men on a sunny street. The men have their backs to the camera. The closest man is wearing a blue shirt, a belt, and grey pants. The man in front of him is wearing a red sweater and blue jeans. The man closest is holding what looks like an automatic weapon up to the head of the man in the red sweater; that man is cringing, as if to protect himself from heavy rain or a falling branch. In a subsequent photo, both men are lying on the ground, streams of dried blood clot about their heads.
Azur said to me, very casually, "You know, I would never indicate the number three by holding up these fingers" and he pointed to the fingers he meant. "Because the Serbs, when they were massacring us, used to hold up those three fingers, to indicate 'Father, son, and Holy Ghost' and after they massacred us, they would chop off our three fingers."
And then he said, "My goal in life is to become a forensic anthropologist, so I can return to my country, and identify corpses. One of my family members was just identified after sixteen years."
Azur, without my prodding, insisted, "If this had happened in Paris, in Western Europe, there would have been protests. But we are Eastern Europeans, Slavs, so it doesn't matter."
As Azur spoke, my head wanted to explode.
One of the rewards of old age is being able to share important lessons with younger people. "You don't know how to do that? Here. I'll show you. Voila! Problem solved!"
In writing my book on Polish-Jewish relations, I had been focused on the past. What really did happen 1918-1939? 1944? 1968? I met men who, their heads suspended between hunched shoulders, books stuffed under their arms – appeared never to enter the twenty-first century, to be always lurking outside its doors, aggressive with their assertion that they had the inside scoop on exactly what went down in 1648.
There was a humanitarian justification for this obsession with the past: "Never again." We had to understand the Holocaust, so it would never happen again. So we had to read the next book, the next thousand books, attend the next debate between the usual combatants. Each pugilist might merely repeat exactly what he had stated in his previous debate performance, but he might place the semi-colon in a new spot; we had to be present for that.
"We must understand the Holocaust to guarantee a better future": That was the justification for obsession with the past, but a Milan Kundera quote comes to mind:
People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.
I know this sounds incredibly stupid and naïve; it sounds incredibly stupid and naïve to me. We haven't fixed things. We are passing on to young people a world where "Never again" is empty syllables. Feeling utterly impotent and dreading the future young people face: not one of the rewards of old age.
As Azur spoke, lines from W. H. Auden's poem, "The Shield of Achilles," went through my head.
Thetis approaches Hephaestus, the Greek god of the forge, a blacksmith, and asks him to make a shield for her son Achilles, heading off to fight the Trojan War, where he will meet his doom. Thetis expects to see beautiful scenes engraved into the metal of the shield. Instead, Hephaestus, the only ugly Olympian, fashions one scene after another of carnage:
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
loitered about that vacancy; a bird
flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
that girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
were axioms to him, who'd never heard
of any world where promises were kept,
or one could weep because another wept.
In the poem, Auden alludes to the crucifixion of Jesus. I ask students why Auden does this. "This is an *allusion.* It is *anachronistic*."
I turn to write "allusion" and "anachronism" on the blackboard.
"Why would Auden place Jesus in a poem about The Trojan War, over a thousand years before Jesus was born?"
Maybe I'm asking the question wrong, but my students never give the answer I suspect is true: Auden is saying that the time on the clock or the calendar page does not matter. "Never again" is a catchy slogan; that's it.
My head wanted to explode as Azur spoke because I craved the release of tears and I did not feel I could cry in front of my student. My head wanted to explode because I didn't know what to say.
"What's your favorite animal?" Jorelle asked. I had entirely forgotten about Jorelle, sitting there behind me, quietly waiting for Azur to finish up so he could have my attention.
Azur looked at Jorelle with a bit of surprise. Not the question one might expect in a discussion of genocide.
Azur's reply was as eccentric as Jorelle's question. "Walrus," he replied. I giggled.
Azur continued talking. He never seemed to run out of things to say, or of quiet outrage.
A few minutes later, Jorelle reached past me and handed Azur a gift: a perfectly fashioned walrus, complete with conspicuous flippers, tusks, and whiskers, made out of Silly Putty.