HAPPY THANKSGIVING

 

On the eve of Thanksgiving we lost power due to a snow storm in New England. Five minutes after I put a lemon cake into the oven the lights went off, and stayed off for three days. When we lose electricity, we lose not only lights but also heat and water, so we had to leave our home. Instead we moved into the generous and warm home of Sally and John Kealy in neighboring Leverett, along with Bernie’s daughter, Alisa, her husband and two year-old, and two dogs. Their hospitality and friendship reminded me again how much I like to be on my own, independent and self-reliant, and only when things go “wrong” do I learn and re-learn the lesson of how much I need other people, and what really calls for the giving of thanks. Sally and John were nothing short of terrific.

 

Milo looking at doors

 

 

Our grandson Milo was part of the gang, and on Friday morning we went to the wonderful Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, with its deeply creative Arts & Crafts room for children, its big caterpillars and exhibits of the finest picture book artists, including a wonderful and humorous one of Bemelmans, who wrote and illustrated the Madeleine children’s books. Milo, at 2-1/2, thought the Museum was terrific for basically two reasons: their plentiful water fountains which went on and off at the push of a button, and the main doors that opened and closed automatically each time he pushed the wheelchair-accessible “Push” button. Anything that came with a button was cool. At some point he lay on the floor, oblivious to all who came and went (and who worked hard not to step on him), trying to detect that first magical moment when the door opened or closed.

 

Lying down for a better look

GOING TO AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU, AGAIN

            Thursday night was our usual night at the barracks. On this evening before Friday, the last day of the retreat, it’s customary for us to return to Birkenau in the darkness and sit in one of the barracks by candle and flashlight. Years ago some of these vigils lasted till midnight and even all the way till morning.

 

            As we arrived at the main brick gate through which the train tracks tubed into the camp and directly to the sites of the crematoria, we went upstairs to the guard tower built above the gate. Here, looking out over their machine guns, SS guards enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of men, women, and children stumbling down from train cars that had been their prisons for days and even weeks, with no food or water, pushed and prodded by other guards with clubs and snarling dogs in the direction of the extermination sites. This has always been a chilling spot, inviting us to bear witness to guards with a panoramic view of the terror and suffering below, drinking coffee, laughing, complaining about the hard work and bad weather, gossiping, wishing the shift would end. Somewhere in that scene many of us could find ourselves, preoccupied by our own problems and our own lives, fitting with more or less ease into a system we may bemoan but won’t violate.

 

            We then walked single-file to the barrack, where Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi invited us to look closer at perpetrators and victims. He especially invited the German participants to talk about their lives and families, their parents and grandparents who went through the war. Stories were related about depression, guilt, silence, denial, and the quiet violence that goes along with keeping secrets. I was moved to hear them. But I felt frustration as well, not with the stories but with the heavy, mechanistic view that if we can understand the past we’ll be able to change the present and future.

 

            The Dalai Lama has said that karma is a subtle thing. In my understanding, it has dimensions that are so vast and numberless they are practically unknowable. We are given tours by well-trained guides who provide numbers, data, and facts, but can’t explain the effects of the Auschwitz genocide on the sky or the wind, on the poi dances of the Maori in New Zealand or the wild, timid manners of the alpaca in Peru. A few can point to the birth of Israel as a consequence of the Holocaust but not to global warming and the loss of half our wildlife over the last 40 years. That Thursday evening in the barrack I silently asked for a quality of bearing witness that was no longer just about perpetrators or victims, of who did what to whom, but to something much, much bigger.

 

Gray Skies Over Birkenau

  Photo by Shir Yaakov Feit         

 

How could something like Auschwitz happen? is a question that is asked not just by folks in our retreat but probably by most visitors walking down the dusty, pebbly paths between strings of barbed wire; you can almost see it in their eyes. The American president Dwight Eisenhower said that if you’re having trouble solving a problem, make it bigger. That night in the barrack I felt it was time for this retreat to go bigger. Clubs and labels—Nazis, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, Gays, Heteros—are as alive now as ever, exciting the same deep emotions, rivalries, and hates, but it feels too linear, too much like old history lessons. I feel we need to change the conversation concerning both the large phenomena of genocide or Shoah and the more personal conversation about the inner voices we ignore or deny. Both are not big enough. We have to ask larger questions even though we don’t know the questions; I don’t even know the words.

 

            Instead I find myself thinking of bacteria, specifically the strains of bacteria that outwit antibiotics and pesticides. They mutate quickly, reproducing fast and changing their chemistry in the process. We humans don’t mutate quickly. If anything, I’m conscious of the slowness of my faculties, the resistance to change, the falling back to patterns, labels, and stories that cast blame or victimize, my desire for fast results that have nothing to do with the patience and sacrifice of billions of bacteria cells that die in the process of regeneration and renewal.

 

            January 2015 will mark 70 years since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historical forces are at hand, and we can ride them or ignore them. I find myself searching for new words, new stories, new formulations. I want to change my own old chemistry and uncover the energies that I believe are still bubbling in that gray place enclosed by barbed wire, powerful energies we haven’t begun to uncover. What is the Buddha’s work in this land of attachments? How do I change the chemistry of greed, anger and ignorance into healing and renewal on all levels, in all dimensions? I looked up again and again on Thursday and Friday at the gray skies over Birkenau and asked myself not what the inmates saw there 70 years ago, but what will be seen there 70 years from now. Will any of this still exist? More important, will anyone care? Or will things have happened that will dwarf the camps at Oswiecim?

 

            For this reason I was deeply moved to see so many peacemakers gather in this place, the same place where, over a period of almost 20 years, many of us met each other for the first time, and then many times after that. We trained on the weekend before the retreat and on the weekend afterwards in listening not just to all the separate voices, but also to the greater truth of the group, the rich and complex language of people sitting in community, bodies stretching to bear witness to everyone in the room, and after that continuing to ask: And who else is in the room? What else must we listen to?

 

            I feel these Zen Peacemakers are on to something, making their gathering place in the ruins of crematoria, in the green killing hills of Rwanda and in the rapacious thievery and violence of the Black Hills in the Dakotas, rooting ourselves in very specific historical events even as the challenge is to address who and what else is in the room. Nothing is without antidote, and even the deepest ash pits will still yield healing herbs to those who know how to search. So perhaps our work—at Auschwitz, Murambi, the Black Hills, Srebrenica, and the streets—is first to bear witness to what happened, and then find some way to create medicinal potions out of blood and cinder, a new chemistry for our precious world.

 

            Many, many bows of appreciation to all who participated in and served this retreat for close to 20 years, and to the souls and spirits of Auschwitz.

Pick Up Your Eyes and Put Them On Me

two stone piles

 

            I was in Israel from July 14 till July 22. When I had scheduled my trip several months back I had no idea that I would arrive in the middle of a war.

 

            I wasn’t in Gaza. I spent most of my time in Jerusalem with my family, going down to Tel-Aviv once and taking my mother away for a weekend by the beach, accompanied by my brother, his daughter, and two grandsons. One time my brother was busy reading the newspapers, especially news on Gaza, while his 3 year-old grandson, Amit, was talking to him. Finally the little boy got fed up with his grandfather’s monosyllabic answers and head buried in the newspaper, and said, “Grandpa, pick up your eyes and put then on me!”

 

            I can’t think of anything else to say about this war that rages on and on, like two bloodied wrestlers hitting and belting and smacking even as the blood pours out their nose and eyes and their teeth drop out of their mouths. The floor beneath them is drenched in blood. Each looks for the other’s legs to totter and fall even as they both share the sinking feeling that there’s no real victory in sight.

 

            Newspapers tally up the dead and wounded, comparing the numbers of one side to the numbers on the other side: how many dead, how many wounded, how many civilians, how many children, how many neighborhoods, how many missiles, how many tunnels. If your own grown boys are there you don’t wonder how many, you think of how they looked the last time you saw them, maybe the silly joke you exchanged, the combination of tenderness and bluster that often accompany these departures. When you see your home destroyed you don’t count how many. You spot a piece of orange fabric that once covered a sofa, the leg of a bedstand, the gigantic hole that was once a roof.

 

            Reporters and politicians deal with numbers, as if that captures a smidgen of the agony that rips people on the inside. They say there’s no exit strategy for either side. I say what Amit said to his grandfather: “Pick up your eyes and put them on me.”

 

            That is not much different from Psalm 16:8: “Shivitti ha-Shem le-negdi tamid.” I set God before me always.

THE BUBALE JOURNAL

Bubale and Log

 

            Germany is playing Argentina for the World Cup. They’re so young and so fast, so dynamic and full of life.

 

            And on a whole other note, there’s the aging Pit Bull Bubale and the aging but not so aged Eve. It’s very hard for my arthritic dog to walk, so I match my pace to hers, which is a wonderful discipline because all my life I hurried. I would walk with someone down the block, and before I knew it they’d be calling my name because I was far ahead of them. Now the dog and I walk side by side, the younger Stanley far ahead. I feel like I’m on retreat, each step a meditation. It’s wonderful because I have so much more time to appreciate everything around me, and everything holding me up.

 

            And then we get to a barrier, a fallen log. What to do? Bubale sits down in contemplation, preparing to tackle it, to climb up with one front paw, then the other, then lift up the back two (the hard part of the deal), and finally skip tenderly down. Not a whine out of her, not a complaint (Why don’t they make handicap-accessible forests?). I feel I listen to her more than ever before, watch her movements (or lack thereof) very carefully, get into relationship with an animal rather than another boring projection of me.

 

            People say I take such good care of my dogs. They give me infinitely more.

REB ZALMAN SCHACHTER-SHALOMI

blue iris

 

           

My family arrived in the United States when I was 7, and a year later we lived in Jamaica, Queens, in the city of New York, next door to a Catholic church. There was a children’s park with swings on the church’s premises, but I was nervous going on those swings because I felt there was something wrong for me, a religious Jewish girl, to be on the grounds of a church. But one twilight, in the middle of the week, I actually sneaked inside the church to look around. There was a statue in back of the nave and as I looked up at it fearfully a nun in full habit appeared and asked if I needed help. I don’t remember saying anything, only that I bolted as fast as my legs could carry me and didn’t rest till I got back home. I didn’t tell anyone a word about this; I was convinced that by just entering the church I had committed a terrible sin.

 

            I remembered this when I heard that Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died last Thursday, and the reason is that something very similar happened to Reb Zalman. Even before reading his spiritual memoir, My Life in Jewish Renewal, I’d heard that when he was a young boy he entered a Catholic church and saw a statue of Mary. Unlike me, he didn’t run. Instead he was dazzled by her and actually burst into tears. He came home and told his mother, who told him not to tell anyone because Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering churches.

 

            Zalman did not give in to fear and guilt as I was to do later. Already then he seems to have had that ability to be deeply moved by anything and everything in the spiritual life.

 

            If my love for Ram Dass catches me unawares, my love and regard for Reb Zalman really surprised me. I came from a family of rabbis on my father’s side. As a young girl, I experienced orthodox Judaism as very narrow and coercive, a religion that focused much more on prohibitions than freedom and God-discovery. When I left that tradition I didn’t want to hear the words religion or spirituality ever again. And then, in my 30s, I met Zen and a teacher who deeply appreciated ecumenism, bringing all the fragments of our world together. Through him I eventually met Reb Zalman.

 

            Reb Zalman himself spent most of his early years as a Lubavitch Chasid, deeply orthodox and committed to their practices. He witnessed some of the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand and his family fled to the United States, settling close to the headquarters of the Lubavitch movement in Brooklyn though Zalman’s parents themselves were not Chasids. In fact, he wrote that when Lubavitch asked him to teach little children, including bringing them from home to school and back, his father thought he was wasting his talents and his life.

 

            But I could just see Zalman delighting in the little children’s questions because he himself had something of a child’s mind. He took such delight in meeting people of other traditions and discovering how they saw God. In his memoir he often talked of chance conversations with fellow passengers aboard a plane, who fortuitously (and certainly not accidentally) included some interesting religious figures and philosophers. He was so playfully curious. As long as he was strong he’d meet us at the door of his house in Boulder whenever we came for a visit and say, “Give me a koan! Throw me a koan!”

 

            He lived a long and rich life, yet I felt a deep pang when I heard he was gone. We need you, I told him silently. We need more people like you, who take joy in all the different forms of worship at the same time that they are deeply rooted in their own path, leaders who enjoy both the parallels and the paradoxes, who see nothing inappropriate about doing Passover Seder alongside Trappist monks celebrating their own Last Supper. You knew that affirming the One meant affirming all the differences as well, that in the One there is no Other.

 

            How much I learned from him in such a short time!

 

TRAUMA, SURVIVAL AND MAKING PEACE

Below is a link to the Huffington Post, where an article appears under Bernie's and my name and which I penned. It's about certain elements of the Israel-Palestine conflict as I see them.

When things like kidnappings and killings occur, I often just want to shake my head and disengage: This is stronger than me, more complicated and even obscure, I can't do much, etc. But I can't turn the page here. More and more I wish to put out a vision of peace and dignity for this world, and not retreat into cynicism or hopelessness, not feel my lips curl yet again into a bitter twist. I can do better. Maybe all of us can do better.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bernie-glassman/trauma-survival-and-makin_b_5526907.html

 

 

BEING WITH RAM DASS

Ram Dass and me in the water

 

 

How do I explain the joy and love I feel when I’m with Ram Dass?

 

His Hindu Bakhti tradition of gods, gurus and devotes isn’t mine. I was attracted to Zen for its ascetic Japanese nature, its bare bone altars, its long, deep silences. I had no interest in ecstatic outpourings or adoration. I felt leery upon hearing people describe their feelings for their gurus or spiritual masters, it reeked of Jonestown before Jonestown, of blind obedience and obdurate parental authority.

 

So I’m a little surprised at how I feel being with Ram Dass.

 

Every morning when we were at his home he said, coming down to breakfast: It’s a beautiful day. Or: Look at the view. How was your night, I ask, and he hesitates before answering: Fine. From the dining area you can see the ocean less than half a mile down, the great Pacific that surrounds Maui, and I remember his telling me once that he had traveled the world while his guru, Maharaj-ji, spent his entire life in three Indian villages. But Ram Dass stopped traveling the world some time ago. Due to his stroke and other physical setbacks, he can’t leave Maui.

 

The film Dying to Know, about Ram Dass and Timothy Leary, premiered in Maui last week. I looked at photos of Richard Alpert from the 1960s before he became Ram Dass, when he was still the highly respected Harvard professor fired for giving LSD to a university undergraduate, and saw a bespectacled man uncomfortable in his body and stiff in his movements. Now he’s paralyzed in half his body and his speech is slow, but he sits straight in his wheelchair and there’s a slow fluidity to his movements that didn’t appear in those old photos. What also didn’t appear then is the warm, direct smile he wears as he talks to you now and the clear and radiant blue eyes, eyes that you want to connect with completely even if, like me, you’ve been a skeptic all your life.

 

As he contemplates the beauty around him, I wonder if he also contemplates the island nature of his existence, its immobilization, and the dependence on a household of helpers and numerous doctors and therapists. Throughout, he says, he gets closer and closer to his guru.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

bubale looking up at road

 

We have a gorgeous spring. Annuals are flowering, perennials are returning (sometimes in unexpected places because their seeds have somehow migrated), and after one rainstorm the trees came back to leaf with a vengeance, concealing the road and the new moss and ferns. This is the time when I feel I can do anything, ready to jump into the saddle and ride my horse anywhere, chase after my imagination, get reborn, resurrected, re-something. The road beckons.

 

It beckons for Bubale, the Pit Bull, too, whose fur gets more dilapidated and inadequate with each freezing winter. She seems so happy when the sun is out, when the heat soothes her winter wounds, when the New England cold gives way to golden spring and summer. But this summer she has a hard time walking; her arthritis gets worse from day to day. A few days ago I took her alone, thinking to walk at her very slow pace and observe her painful back hips. But at the foot of the road that would take us up the hill she sank down and wouldn’t move. It’s a beautiful, sunny road with wonderful animal smells, and it takes us into the green shady woods with refreshing water and big banks of rocks and soil concealing innumerable tunnels for the small animals she loves to sniff and chase. What a trooper she has been, going at her own slow pace but always keeping up at the last minute, hurrying those painful legs to be with Stanley and me, our old party that has scouted those woods for close to a decade.

 

But not this day.

 

“Don’t you want to try it?” I asked her.

 

She gave me an answer as clear as day, looking up at the road she’s taken for so many years, and that she may never take again.

WHEN DO YOU KNOW IT'S FOR THE LAST TIME?

Bubale in the Pool

 

      When someone grows old or sick, his/her most mundane activities take on new meaning.

 

     On a beautiful warm day I take the dogs into the woods, down the old paths we’ve taken for close to a decade. Bubale, our arthritic Pit Bull, walks well behind me and I’m not concerned; she knows where we’re going, takes it on trust, can still give a little push in order to catch up. I know that soon she’ll favor her right side as the discomfort kicks in and that she’ll pause before the fallen trees that lie across the path, maybe wondering whether or not to make that hop over the trunk.

 

     Today when we got to the pools in the woods she hurried down the bank—I thought only to drink—and stretched herself in the water to cool down, lapping all the while. I remembered how almost 10 years ago she wouldn’t come close to the water and it was only after watching her friend Stanley splash and frolic countless times that she began to walk in gingerly, one paw after another, till she discovered the exquisite joy of settling her entire body down in the cool water after a laborious walk. Then she’d look up at me as though to say: Why aren’t you coming in?

 

     I wasn’t sure I’d see her do this again. As things get harder for her, I start making up my list, wondering when will be the last time that she’ll:

     walk into the woods

     get up or down the stairs

     lie on the grass in the sun

     chew on a marrow bone

 

     More and more I see absence in the middle of presence, not doing in the middle of doing, closing in the middle of continuity.

RWANDA: APRIL 2014

A big council

 

 

Monday, April 14. We’re at the EPR, the Presbyterian Church’s well-known guesthouse in Kigali, seated on chairs assembled in a circle. Downstairs a children’s choir practices for the Easter weekend services; they will sing for us tomorrow at our orientation. But right now we’re 11 Council facilitators, 6 “internationals” and 5 Rwandans. It’s supposed to be 6 Rwandans.

 

Where is Albertine?

Albertine withdrew.

Why?

Death in family.

No, Noella corrects, speaking in English very slowly in a clear, mellifluous voice: They discovered the whereabouts of the remains of her family members and the family is preparing to receive them and prepare them for burial.

 

Are remains still being found even now, 20 years later, I ask our host, Dora Urujeni, and she explains that prison inmates are still revealing the whereabouts of those they killed so long ago. Someone else is assigned to take Albertine’s place so that now we’re what we should be, 6 and 6, and can continue the preparations begun last January when Jared Seide, Director of the Center for Council, flew to Rwanda and trained a group of young Rwandans to become council facilitators and lead, in their words, peace circles. Out of that group Jared chose 6 to co-facilitate during this retreat. But Albertine’s absence casts a shadow over our small group, a micro version of the vaster shadow hanging over Rwanda in April 2014: the almost 1 million Tutsi men, women and children who died over a period of 100 days starting April 1994.

 

That year, Easter fell on April 3 in Catholic Rwanda. Five days after mourning Christ’s crucifixion and three after celebrating his resurrection, Rwandans started killing each other. And no matter where you go, whom you talk to, no matter how green and pastoral the hills (Rwanda is known as the Land of One Thousand Hills) and how bountiful the rains, the pain is there: in the keening and wailing of women during the annual ceremonies, in the testimonies of survivors, in the memorial piles of skulls and bones, in people’s eyes.

 

“It was the bad policies and Satan that caused me to do this,” says Dora, translating for Emmanuel Ndayisaba, who chopped off half the arm of Alice Mukarurinda with a machete.

 

We are sitting at another church-owned facility, this time Catholic, a 30-minute walk from the genocide memorial at Murambi, near the city of Butare in southern Rwanda, a small hilltop topped by what was once a technical school with dormitories, where 50,000 Tutsis—men, women and children—were sent for safety, only to be shot, hacked to pieces, stabbed repeatedly, and stoned, between 3 and 10 am on April 21. 50,000 people in 7 hours. Over 800 corpses, their bones preserved in lime, lie on long wooden tables in those small rooms, some with fragments of clothing or tufts of hair. There are rooms of children, babies, and women, preserved as they were found, holding their arms to protect their faces or else clasping them in a final prayer. The sweet, sickly smell of lime is everywhere; I seem to smell it constantly on my hands and fingers.

 

Participants from 10 countries and 4 continents spend four days together, bearing witness to the tragedy that started some 60 years ago with small-scale massacres and Tutsi families fleeing across the border, crested in 1994, ripples even now as visibly on Rwandans’ faces as their wrinkles and smiles, and continues to cause havoc in neighboring Burundi and Congo. We start the day with small, diverse council groups and spend the rest of the day in Murambi itself, meditating along the crypts of the dead, walking slowly among the dorms in back and along the slopes where bodies were thrown into mass graves and wedged so tightly that not enough air circulated to cause their disintegration, enabling many of them to lie preserved in the dorm rooms themselves.

 

 Morley Kamen and Murambi Survivor Pauline Mukakabanda

Morley Kamen and Murambi Survivor Pauline Mukakabanda

 

But now it’s evening, after dinner, which means it’s time for Testimony. We sit in a large, handsome room in a double circle. Emmanuel and Alice sit across from each other. He talks about the many people he killed before he came across Alice; she tells of how he cut off her arm. He recounts how he asked for her forgiveness, and she tells us how she came to forgive him. And then he says: Satan caused me to do this.

 

Later I hear from other participants that at that moment they felt like killing him. I didn’t. How else to account for how someone gets up one day, picks up a machete, spear, or sharp-edged club, goes to the house next door and starts hacking people he’s known for years into pieces? Yes, I know the historical details. I know that the campaign to murder Tutsis goes as far back as the 1950s when Tutsi families began to flee to neighboring Uganda, Burundi, and Congo. I’ve been to the genocide memorial museums and listened to the propaganda, heard commonplace words like cockroaches and vermin to describe Tutsis, the Hutus’ Ten Commandments prohibiting all connections with Tutsis, and the radio stations barking out orders to kill. This went on for decades, followed by registrations of ethnicity, prohibitions against attending university or getting certain jobs, building the edifice brick by brick along the lines of Nazi Germany, culminating in the genocide of 1994.

 

And yet . . . Neighbors assaulting neighbors? The massacre at Murambi where more than 7,000 were murdered on average per hour on one relatively small hilltop? Children’s heads smashed against a church classroom wall, still bloodstained after two decades? If Auschwitz/Birkenau terrifies through its vastness and meticulous, efficient design, Murambi is a reminder that genocide is possible in the far more modest and intimate environment of a town and village, even of one’s own family (in certain cases of intermarriage Hutu husbands killed their Tutsi wives and children). Worse, it doesn’t depend on someone dropping canisters of Zyklon B and then going away for a cup of coffee while people suffocated to death undetected underground, but can happen with face-to-face weaponry, up close and personal. So I can see why Emmanuel believes it’s the work of Satan, of some sudden virus that entered his bloodstream and made him do things he’d never dreamed of before.

 Meditation By the Dead

 

It’s also a virus that eliminates basic points of safety we take vitally for granted: Yesterday I thought the government would take care of me, and today it’s promoting my slaughter; last week I thought the police were there to protect me, and now they’re abetting my murder; last Sunday I thought the village would come together around families that share their church and have lived there for generations, and now I know better; last night a friend and I had a beer together, and now he’s coming after me with a machete. This kind of turnabout is disorienting and traumatizing. The Rwandan survivors struggle to explain this to us much as Jewish parents tried to explain to their children years ago why they didn’t see the end coming: Yes, things were getting worse, yes there were signs, there were new laws and prohibitions, but—this! Who imagined this?

 

During the retreat I get to know Alice a little better, admire the colorful orange dress she alternates with a long, flaring navy skirt that cinches at her very narrow waist topped by a handsome jacket, see also the thin brown arm that ends in a stump 4 inches above the wrist which she never bothers to hide. So when Alice testifies about Emmanuel, I know from the start that he’s the one who cut off her arm. But she adds some details I didn’t know, such as how she stood deep in the swamp trying to hide from helicopters circling above her, how they found her and stabbed her repeatedly with knives and a spear, gashed one side of her head, and finally how they cut the baby she carried in half before Emmanuel hacked off her hand. I didn’t know the part about the baby, nor how she crept off to the bushes and lay there for 3 days, holding both halves of her baby, her severed arm oozing infection.

 

 

Satan caused me to do this. Tell me, what’s crazier, faith in the power of the devil or the knowledge that humans do these things? How many of us bear witness to the breadth of our own brutality, to Joseph Conrad’s The horror! The horror!  I am reminded of how in the first Auschwitz retreat in 1996, Peter Matthiessen, who just passed away, rose to remind us that humans are great and terrible animals. Joseph Conrad said: The only legitimate basis of creative work lies in the courageous recognition of all the irreconcilable antagonisms that make our life so enigmatic, so burdensome, so fascinating, so dangerous, so full of hope. They exist!  For me, he’s not just speaking of fiction, he’s speaking of life.

 

How much easier it is to flee, to peruse the news, and drown in our Western comfortable, complicated lives. How much easier it is to remain silent. I had to forgive Emmanuel, otherwise I could not go to heaven after I die; so I forgave myself and then I forgave others. Alice says this quietly and simply, probably never dreaming that I hear it as a rebuke—not to my relative affluence—but to the mental and emotional layering that characterizes so much of my Western consciousness, the pompous, shallow preciousness of it all. Alice cuts through to the chase. If I wasn’t so leery of spiritual lingo I’d say she wields Majusri’s sword and shows how simple, so simple, the big heart can be.

 

 Juliette Mukakabanda, survivor of Murambi, and Alice Mukarurinda

Juliette Mukakabanda, survivor of Murambi, and Alice Mukarurinda

 

We don’t just bear witness to Murambi and 1994, we also bear witness to the differences among us, representing many cultures. Is meditation the work of the devil? Do the talking pieces passed around in council make us powerless or ill? Is the candle witchcraft? Perplexed questions, too, from the other side: Why do some laugh when Juliette, a Murambi survivor, attributes her salvation to Jesus? Why can’t they follow the schedule and get to activities on time? Why can’t they bear to sit so close to the large crypts of bodies?

 

There are screams and anger: Why do we have to have perpetrators here, and if we do, why have them speak? Don’t talk about forgiveness, that’s nothing but denial! There’s the stuttering of long, voweled names in Kinyarwanda as we read the names of those who died, people adding lists of names of family members, an entire village, 160 patients and staff at a psychiatric clinic. The litany of Name Unknown that I remember so well from Auschwitz.

 

In the evenings those who testify get so emotional they forget to hold the mike correctly and their talk gets garbled. Or else they take a long time reconstructing the scene hour after hour, day after day: where Josephine Dusabimana, who rescued 13 Tutsis, went for beer for the men she was hiding, how long it took her to get back, what her husband said to her (Don’t bring any more of your Tutsi friends into this house!) A circle of 60 is big: The translation didn’t work! They talk so softly I can’t hear them. We lose power many times, the lights go off, and the rain pounds, pummeling the tin roof, and even then there’s controversy: It helps us forget; no, heaven is crying; no, God is angry; no, it waters the seeds of peace and helps them flower.

 

On and on, this work of not-knowing and listening, not-knowing and listening, this meeting with contending, forceful energies we didn’t know were out there, and now they’re no longer out there they’re in there, in here, in us.

 

So there’s the embrace, too: The first evening when 60 people introduce themselves by name and country, then jump to their feet to greet each other, shake hands, learn each other’s form of embrace (Is it kisses on the cheek or just cheek to cheek? Is it twice or three times?), stumbling from one language to another (It’s not Rwandese, it’s Kinyarwanda?), till they finally just stand together and look at each other with a big smile (Is it okay to look straight into people’s eyes in Rwanda?). And the last evening, when singers form cross-cultural duets, when one recites a poem while the other plays a strange, foreign instrument called a shakuhachi; when the hips of Congolese women dance back and forth while someone drums on a wooden chair seat; and internationals pour into the dance circle, weaving their arms up in the air, trying to emulate the graceful, raveling movements, feeling, as one participant put it, so so grateful for the differences.

 

So grateful to Rwanda, to the people who can’t forget their pain, who insist on life even as they fear that this can happen all over again. Beautiful, turquoise, stalwart Rwanda.

 

So grateful to all who were there; to the peace circle team and their trainer, Jared Seide; to Ginni Stern, who continues to build connections; to generous, hardworking hosts Dora Urujeni and Issa Higiro; to Genro Gauntt, diplomat and statesman; to Bernie.

 

Last Rainy Walk Around the Dormitories in Murambi

Last Rainy Walk in Murambi

 

 

 





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