Saturday, January 10, 2009

After the Galilee

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. ~ James Baldwin

Every morning we would rise in the dark and cold Galilee and walk to the tractor shed for coffee and cookies. We divvied ourselves into work teams, climbed into the kibbutz wagons, and Yossi or Bennie or another leader would hook up the Fordson tractors and drive us up to the banana fields. The sun would toss up a broad announcement of light behind the shadows of the Golan Heights, then burst up suddenly behind a wave of wind that swept across the sea and up the ridges where we bounced along the rutted lanes. Swallows exploded from the trees and sent up volleys of squawks and fluttering wings into the brightening sky. To the south, Mt. Arbel sliced through the morning fog like the ghost-prow of a ship.

At the first crossroads we stopped to wave at Reuven, who stood motionless in his own shadow, his eyes tucked under the wide brim of his blue cotton cap. The first day when we passed, David pointed to Reuven and whispered about the faded cobalt numbers that had been tattooed into his forearm at Auschwitz. His fingertips were stained dark orange from decades of holding cigarettes, his lips drawn into a thin line, a face devoid of palpable emotion. He had lost his wife and children in the camps.

When I inquired if he ever hopped in the wagon to help harvest the bananas for export to Europe, Yossi told me he wanted nothing to do with Europe. And besides, he was too spun out to work anymore. The Hebrew word for it was masugga. It was close to the Yiddish my mother used for the same expression, meshuga. I knew it well.

We merely drove past and let Reuven be, stopping on the way back to drive him to the kibbutz commons for lunch. It was as good as it was likely to ever be for him. And if he was out in the fields contributing to the effort--in his own way--it was honorable of the kibbutz to sustain his life with food, medicine, shelter, and love. But seeing him in that state did little to unravel the decades of hatred I had mustered for the Germans.

Every fall, the Jews of the San Fernando Valley gathered at Devonshire Downs for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Thousands of us would huddle in huge halls and tents at the fairgrounds while the Rabbi read the service and the Cantor blew the sacred ram's horn. I hated it because it typically fell on the same dates of the World Series, it took me out of class during those precious get-to-know-you days of the new fall semester in school and, worst of all, you had to fast from sunset to sunset. Everyone had headaches and was miserable with atonement.

During the service, the Rabbi typically moaned about intermarriage, how it was killing off the precious bloodline of the tribes of Israel and, of course, how the Arabs were bound to push all the Israelis into the Mediterranean Sea. This moment, coupled with years of hearing diatribes from family members against Germany, German cars, blond people, the Wagnerian operas I loved to play on the stereo, etc.--added to years of watching documentaries on the Holocaust, piles of shoes, of bones, of eyeglasses, of living skeleton survivors in rags--well, I was sure the enemies of Judaism had us right where they wanted us, all assembled under one roof in the San Fernando Valley where they could turn on the gas.

So naturally, when I left Israel in the spring, when I took a ship across the Mediterranean and later boarded a bus across Europe, I would have nothing to do with Germany. When my fellow riders got off to tour the German cities along the way between Athens and Amsterdam, I stayed aboard, determined that none of my money would fall into German hands. A cavity search in the icy rain at a German border post (because of the terrorist Bader Meinhoff threat--not because there was a Jew on the bus) further set my heart and soul against them.

* * *

It took me many years to concede that I was not born with hatred, that I learned how to loathe others as a way to remain a victim in my own flesh. It was a way to take poison and forever wait for the other man to die.

In retrospect, I cannot accept my breakthrough as coincidence. The melting of the hardened heart may take a lifetime, but the suddenness of how my perspective was altered continues to astonish and remind me to search out where blindness blocks me from grace.

In early 1991 I was diagnosed with severe depression. That in and of itself was no surprise to me, given the suicides in my immediate family, or that I had spent years attempting to treat my full-body gloom with alcohol or drugs. The doctor sentenced me to cognitive therapy and a medication that felt initially like a lousy batch of LSD that some crazed hippie had concocted in his garage. It was humbling to be meshugga. I couldn't stand the counseling, which was cut-rate and run by an amateur at a county medical clinic. One time she asked me to "walk through the fire" with her support in going cold turkey off my medication, and I ended up in the hospital with toxic shock. She was fired and the facility is lucky I was too depressed to sue their hide.

That winter, I wrote a poem by the wood-burning stove in my cabin in the forest near Chimacum:

On the Promenade of the Seasonally Affected

The last Canadian goose six weeks into fall
rises off the putting green, all
business, and dives behind Mt. Townsend.
The November moon ends
all hope this year we shall not go down into winter.
We trudge through town
hands in our pockets, facing down the wind,
the raw-toothed leaves and sand.

Down in Chimacum the ensilage for cows
weeps methane. Crows pair up in rough-hewn boughs,
school girls rummage through strewn hay
gone to loam in shallow lanes.
Girls are much too new to feel the ache
of natural ruin and fall, arctic air
smokes from their lips, their hair
flared into the draining light of the season.

The rebellion of human chemistry betrays reason.
It’s early dark, dawn’s too late,
& in the collapse of the year We Affected contemplate
fatality, our blood thick beneath the ice
of dim temper, curt hearts out of practice.
A feather on the sidewalk, eiderdown,
and you weep for nothing. (The pulp mill lays down
heavy over the hills a wet black stench of paper.)

The doctor said if medicated you will need to taper
off the elixir and let the Visitor exit as he will.
How lucky to be common for just one season, spill
over into autumn, then skim the black ice of winter, into spring,
the summer light splintering in sheer white threads across the lawn.
Then you drift into fall, falling, nesting like a naturally grown
creature, family around you, friends, Christmas bright,
no sneering thief to filch you off to night.

Early in the new year, I moved to town to be closer to people. I found a lovely little place overlooking the countryside and the Straights of Juan De Fuca. You could see the masts and stacks of large steamers that sailed past town beyond the line of forested hills. Through friends, I discovered a group of depressed people who were looking for company. They sought a safe place to feel temporarily insane in a world with little tolerance for the meshugguna. We began meeting at my house every Thursday night.

There were six of us, and we all came from elsewhere. Claudia spoke with a heavy German accent, wore her hair pulled tightly into a braid, and her eyes flashed on you like a heat ray. I liked her, but felt the old interference rise up like a powerful wedge between us. Each week "We Affected" met to discuss our highs and lows, our walk among the "normal" people. (Normal, my friend Don says, is a setting on a clothes dryer). We'd end each session with prayers and hopes, holding hands, and we'd agree upon a project to complete during the upcoming week. In one case, we settled on creating art that reflected our experience.

The following Thursday night we assembled again in my candle-lit living room. We concealed our projects in a paper bag or box until it was our turn top speak. We went around the room, laughing, applauding each others audacity. It wasn't much for art, but each piece took a chink from the wall. When it was Claudia's turn, she peeled back the brown butcher paper...

It was a bird cage from a pet store. Inside the cage sat a blond-haired doll with blue eyes, alone on the floor, painted tears streaming down her face. The door to the cage was fastened tight with a padlock. "She doesn't know," Claudia said softly, "where is the key."

We sat silently a while in the candlelight, sparing the empty platitudes and false starts at meaning. We held each other.

* * *

A few months later, our group disbanded. The meshugga were all doing well, moving out into the world again in widening orbits. It was spring and the Casablanca lilies rose in the bed beside my front door. Ants marched up and down the long, green stalks and the cherry blossoms broke into fragrant faces in the trees.

Claudia and her husband left town suddenly, quite without fanfare. But before she left, Claudia dropped by to give me a gift wrapped in plain brown paper. Inside the box I found the Native American tapestry she had made, a dream catcher of dazzling threads and beads with feathers streaming from the sides. It hangs on on my wall today, helping me remember precisely how we are freed.

Dreams and wings, dear Claudia. Ich liebe dich.

1 comment:

tangobaby said...

"It took me many years to concede that I was not born with hatred, that I learned how to loathe others as a way to remain a victim in my own flesh." You explain something that I have felt in myself for years, but did not have the words to explain it, even to myself.

I think when we release ourselves from this self-imposed victimhood, then we can begin to prepare to be in the presence of angels, and they can come from anwhere in the world, even Germany.

This is a beautiful, beautiful remembrance. Thank you for sharing.