I once had a house on a pond. The sun rose in the east, up over a small wooded area and crossed a huge open sky to settle itself and disappear sinking slowly into the waiting ocean; the pond was the mirror that held it all. My backyard paradise nested comfortably in a quiet curve along the water’s edge. The size, shape and color of it changed, depending on the will of nature, something that I as an aspiring gardener could not seem to dictate. An old willow tree graced the edge of the shallow pond, its roots tangled with a mass of wild roses that oscillated between thorn and flower. Whispering with the wind, the willow’s long leaves were the first to bud and the last to fall, and without the brazen brilliance of orange or gold or red, but with a quiet fading serene kind of green they fell to the ground silently, gracefully. A timeless sentinel; surely the willow tree is the most exquisite of all trees, the most delicate yet the most supple, the most enduring.
A thick hedge of lilacs stood as a penetrable wall between my yard and my neighbor’s yard. Two of them had died and been replaced by landscapers. Every day after work in peace with the renewing circle of life and nature, I stood quietly in reflection with a hose in my hand and soaked the new bushes with the large amounts of water they needed to take root. Mesmerized, I watched the flowing water bubble to the ground until a puddle wrapped itself around the base of the neophyte lilac- the puddle growing wider and deeper and wider until it slowly morphed to thick mud with runaway rivulets; and then I turned my hose to the next bush. From that green woody wall that separated my green paradise from my neighbor’s blooming explosion, my neighbor poked his head through. “Prepare yourself for a wild winter,” he told me. I learned his name was Richard; he owned the cat that thought it lived in my house, the cat that started cat fights somewhere around 4:00 AM. I told him I was a Yankee and knew a thing or two about blustery cold bitter winters and then I proceeded to brag just how cold and how blustery it got up there on the top of Vermont Mountains.
But, his advice proved to be accurate.
I should have expected as much as I watched him, a towering six foot three Scot, chop wood and stack it, day by day, until the row was double wide and the length of his garage; then longer; then higher; then deeper.
As winter settled in and the wind with it, the leaves fell and were swept away. The trees were left lean and naked; every branch, every bush, every tree was stripped bare. I reasoned that the harsh treatment gave them strength to survive a long hard winter. The thick teak pole of a summer umbrella was snapped in half like a dead twig; where the umbrella landed I did not know. I battened down the place after that: all storms were lowered and the windows locked shut. Outside furniture was stacked in the cellar, dead summer plants were thrown to my neighbor’s compost, spring bulbs were planted in hard ground and mulched over, large pumpkins were put out with little orange lights, then colored lights when the pumpkins froze and were nibbled at and then eaten by nocturnal animals. I was happy, very happy. I had flowers to sow with seeds I lost. The wind howled at me while I worked. It was old music in a new theatre and I ignored it. I decided no wind would get the better of me no matter how furious or determined it showed itself to be.
But the wind won the argument that winter, and more.
It howled around me, like a demanding naïve spoiled child having a temper tantrum, not knowing how it started or how to end it. Many times trying to win the fight if not pick the fight, I poked myself into the center of it. When I trekked down to the harbor I fought my way past the marine labs and drove my personal tank down past the aquarium to the corner where a federal facility stood like a fortress. I pushed forward fighting to finish, determined to stand in victory at the wide open horizon of Great Harbor; to stand there in defiance and look over to the lights of Penzance Point. With every step forward, bent over to protect myself, I tried to shield my body from the blows of the great force of the wind- as if it had a superior authority that required that I bow over in homage- that I needed to learn I was just a person, a mere person. To look up when walking, to look up and see the stars or the flashing beacon of the lighthouse? – no that would bring tears to my eyes. I didn’t want to cry, and so I stopped looking up until I got to the open shores of the ocean.
I learned my one hundred and thirty pounds was no fortress.
But that winter the battle was on: the ocean froze mid-flight, mid-thought. The salt pond frozen in rippling patterns of conquered ice was often dotted with blue circles that shimmered with a temporary fleeting translucence. They were that tiny space of time created when the sea otters jammed their hard nose up through the frozen surface, swallowed the iced air and the iced eels and then ducked down again to disappear. The open puddle shimmered for a few moments but was soon frozen over. All too quickly the puddles became pot marks, scraped scars scattered over a windswept surface: the mirror long since displaced and all its magical qualities forgotten.
That the winter of 2007 was better would imply that it was a pleasant and mild winter. Or maybe I finally gave in to the powers of nature, stopped inserting myself into unwinnable arguments and learned to endure a cold blustery wild winter from the warm hearth inside my house with my hands warmly resting on my keyboard and not shoved into wool lined leather gloves. To stop arguing…….
I took root that winter writing, reading, and researching. Nature fell into its pattern with or without my attention. The powerful wind still flew across the harbor and across the pond and still whipped the sea into a torment. The wind came crashing into the house and into the trees, tearing them apart twig by twig, limb by limb, leaving the spoils scattered across the cold barren backyard. I should have gone out and gathered the downed branches, but I didn’t. One night a group of families took to the ice, bored down holes and stuck a torch in. They glided over the barren ice, around and around circling entwining, looping, laughing, singing and holding their torches high up above their head like fire was being transferred from Mount Olympus: a beautiful sight to witness. It was over too soon and not repeated. So many magical moonlit nights gave way to morning gray. It was the winter I wrote Zionist comments and I wrote them on blogs, that Israel has the right to exist. It was the winter I learned that people around the world had discovered that words could be weapons and they knew how to use them. Just because they did not kill did not mean they were not deadly.
“Go crawl in your hole you filthy pig”
I closed my eyes and wanted to delete the words left to me, left to thousands of people everywhere. I learned that no place was immune to hate. There was no warm shelter for the unwanted weary who dared not ask for it. It can be an easy thing to do, to delete something that does not please you. To censor it. Or burn it. Or bury it. To kill it and any memory that it once existed. To report the cruelties? To whom? I did that and it changed nothing. No, hate doesn’t die that easily. Too many need to hate.
To pretend that evil was just a word and did not exist…
That we lived in a golden enlightened time of tolerance…
That mankind was essentially good…
I don’t know when I stopped believing in God and angels and miracles and the goodness of mankind but maybe it was inevitable after fire destroyed everything I owned for the third time. The surrender to non-belief was easier than having faith in something that more and more people did not believe. I was too intelligent for all that god nonsense. I was better than that. I was enlightened. God was reduced to little more than an overused modifier for a fairytale phase, a clinging to something that never happened or would happen. Prayer and worship were worthless unproductive emotions perpetuated by weak supplicants. God tried many times to show me the goodness of mankind and hope and faith but that winter things weren’t going well. Over time I soon realized how bad it could become. I checked the lock of every door and every window and learned to live with fear. I learned the cruelty of people and the cruelty of hope. I decided that even hope was worthless faith, that hope was lost. Two hard learned lessons. By the time winter settled in that year, I’d become as hard as nails.
I opened my e-mail from Britain that 27th day of January and read the Open Democracy article by Fred Halliday. “..There can be no poetry after Auschwitz...” At that moment, that stacked up monumental turtle moment I admitted that I struggled to write poetry, and almost with a desperation I wished that I could rediscover that joy in my heart. But I didn’t cry over that, no not that.
“It seems mankind is unlearning everything we may have learned,” he continued. I finished the article of his drive through Krakow, the arrival at the gates, and then the tour of buildings. Then the tour of the kilns of hell. He ended the article: “It is too soon for silence. Far from it.” I closed my e-mail about democracy.
The inhumanity of mankind
Abhorrent acts for which mankind did not intend words
In the name of God
In the name of Good
Six million dead
All that banged around in my head; deprecation, starvation, humiliation, then torture, death: but I did not cry over that. No, not that. I didn’t cry because I could not and would not.
I refused to cry because that would be surrender.
There are many of us who died in the kilns of hell and reincarnated. Some of us remember; most of us do not. Some of us do remember but repress the horror because it’s unthinkable. We have to repress it- to do otherwise renders us traumatized once again and unable to move forward and beyond the trauma- to Forgive and Forget. Some of us are so traumatized we reject religion, we reject hope and we do not move forward.
Were they alone?
Were they allowed to hold the hands of an adult as they walked to their death? Or did they walk politely like good little children in well mannered rows? Their final moments of breathing, was there someone there to help them die? Did they sing as they were being washed in acid? Did they drop to their knees and pray? Did the children bang at the door desperately trying to get out? Was it quick? Did it take ten minutes or five minutes or thirty minutes?
Did their father in heaven reach down and pull their pure little innocent soul out of that wracked little body? Before the acid hit? Or when the little body was seething and already dead?
That cold January day in Woods Hole I succumbed. I surrendered the pain. The pain of remembering innocent young children, the pain of knowing records exist that children were fattened up to prove to humanitarian groups that Jews were not being systematically executed, but after inspection, were indeed like lice picked off and sent to be gassed.
Yes, that. That was it. That’s what made me cry. It was the children, the millions of innocent children. That’s what I could not endure, that’s what made me cry. The cold cruelty of exterminating children: yes that.
My head dropped to the desk and I cried. I cried from a depth of soul I never before cried. It was a pain that my heart knows no way to bear, and so it cannot.
To rid myself of the memory, to find a way to live, to survive, my face streaming with the harsh salt of decades, I raised my head from defeat and knew the way to survive was to write it out of me, to rid myself of all that. If I could just reason it away.
I turned away from the pond, away from my desk, away from the harsh cruelties of the news; on the counter my journal lay open with a pen, waiting. I threw it open to a new page. I wrote to rid myself of the pain, needing to do it, to put all that hurt down on paper so that once again I could build a new shell, protect myself and learn to live amidst the pain that I did not want to feel or know.
I don’t know how long I stood there writing, or trying to write but I wrote a page then another. I turned to face the pond with red swollen eyes, as if I could turn from my journal for a moment, that fleeting moment of sanity to have a new thought and then turn back to the journal and finish writing….to be healed, to be cured, to not have my journal washed with salt that blurred my pen…
My heart was in tiny, tiny pieces. Tears burned my cheeks. It was too painful to open my eyes, to look up, to look out in a storm. But I did.
The gracefully bare weeping willow was filled with robins.
They were silent. The birds were not singing. No fluttering, no preening, no worms. They were patiently waiting. They were fat, robust, proud robins looking at me looking at them.
Within moments and without noise or the rush of fluttering wings, the flock of robins rose from the tree, expanded like a plume over the yard and out over the pond, changing in formation. And then again, -together in a choreographed opera, the blue sky was filled with soaring robins as they separated in an exquisite performance rising higher and up and then apart then soaring together, floating down and separating with graceful elegance. Some settled in the bushes to the right of the house, others flew to the lilacs to the left of the house.
I was stunned.
I stood silently at the wall of windows, trying to fathom how many. I wanted to count them; for some reason I needed to count them as if counting would be verification and make them more real. And I could have counted them if they stayed still, but they did not and would not. As if they knew when I was trying to count and they knew they shouldn’t be counted, the robins rose and flew to another bush and scattered. Not in unison, but as if some robins thought of it before others did: first one bird, then a few more, then all of them were scurrying about in silence, choosing which branch to land on.
I wanted to see every single robin, to not miss even one. I turned to the left and angled myself to see as much as I could: they were not on Richard’s bushes or his wood pile or his car. I raced to the right of the house: I stood on tiptoe looking out over the sink: robins were in every bush down my driveway. They were in a symphony, and it was one that I wished I could hear.
Robins circled my house.
Every bush, every tree, every branch, down the side of the house was alive with robins. It was magnificent. I raced to my journal to record it, to write what I was seeing. I wrote a paragraph, I was happy, I was excited; my heart was pounding as my pen flew over the page. I turned to the willow tree; mesmerized. I stopped writing and stopped trying to count them. As if the opera was in a new movement and Dudley, the angel sent from heaven had tapped his podium, for a third time the robins rose up to the sky and over the yard and over the pond creating a new formation. And then, falling like gentle rain released from silk-lined clouds, down they came, one by one, once again to be in the gracefully bare weeping willow tree.
It was then I realized the flock was small. The robins were not like the chattering flocks of sparrows that fly south in October and return to a warm April. They weren’t like the noisy geese that show off in honking parades as they fly across the autumn sky in the direction of an easier winter. The robins flew from bush to bush not for the berries, there were none, but as if they wanted to create the illusion of many robins, more than reality provided.
I turned away; my back to the pond, to the yard, to the willow, to the robins. I was trembling and crying. When I looked back to the pond, to the willow and to the robins, the robins were gone. I was exhausted and fell into the swivel chair that edged up to the twenty foot wall of windows. I dropped the balls of my feet against the old sill and pressed my toes against the cold glass; with the pen firmly in my fingers I wrote:
I must believe God sent me robins for a reason
I must believe I am here for a reason, that I have a purpose
I must believe that all six million of us, and more, are here and stronger and we will survive, that we do each of us, have a purpose
The next day a hawk arrived. He stayed in that tree for days.