Every time I look at the photo of the wonderful Violet Catches holding the hand of Greta Thunberg between the two of hers, I want to cry and cheer and tell everyone: Yes, there is hope for us!
And I hope to see Violet this evening.
Yesterday it snowed in Rapid City, South Dakota, part of a big snowstorm to hit the Great Plains. Luckily, I’ve arrived there today in the afternoon and will only have to contend with swirling snow and winds as we find our way to Bear Butte and a weekend gathering of the Descendants of Wounded Knee. Three of us (Zen Peacemakers) are going at the express invitation of Manny and Renee Ironhawk, a quick but packed weekend returning us to the East Coast very late Sunday night.
I have no idea how to support a gathering of families descended from those hundreds of Lakota, over a hundred years ago, camped below that low ridge with the big Hotchkiss guns blasting away at what were mostly women and children. The firing power was so lopsided (the Indians were previously disarmed) that it’s assumed that most of the 25 US Cavalry dead were also killed by their own fire.
“You can just hang out with them and listen,” said a friend who has spent years bearing witness at Pine Ridge.
I am certainly ready to listen to stories. At the same time, I think about my mother. I must have heard my mother’s stories of living through the Holocaust literally hundreds of times. Unlike other survivors who didn’t like to talk, my mother couldn’t stop talking. She’s also an excellent storyteller, and to this very day, at the age of 91, continues to be invited to speak in front of groups, especially around Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day.
But in all the years of watching her do this, I never got a sense of healing. She gets dewy-eyed in the same places of her narrative, cries in the same places, pauses while overcome with emotion in the same places. I feel that she relives the trauma again and again, though in milder form. She clings with greater ferocity than ever to the label Holocaust Survivor, and as her mind begins to fade she yields to frequent bursts of paranoia, telling me on the phone that the Nazis are coming back to hunt everyone down.
Telling your story is crucial to healing, but it’s often not enough. Some people get stuck in the same cycle of telling and reliving things again and again over an entire lifetime.
We had a number of survivors at our Auschwitz retreats in Poland in the early years. Some relished telling their stories in front of large groups, clearly enjoying the rapt attention. Others were more reticent, refusing to speak until a space of trust had been created. None were given center stage. Small council groups continued to take place at 7 each morning where other people told their stories: The Belgian woman who bitterly regretted not talking to her father for decades before he died; the Unitarian minister remembering the death of her daughter; a man crying over his wife dead in an accident, German participants recalling the silence that enveloped their upbringing.
Many times people said it was crazy to bring this up at a place like Auschwitz, but to me it wasn’t crazy at all. Auschwitz wasn’t just death, it was everything.
The Great Plains aren’’t just about death, either. We’ll find snow, buttes and mountains, the motorcycle city of Sturgis, past and present melting into one. I call it a Mix and Match. Listening to stories of suffering, bearing witness to life now on the reservation, but sharing our lives, too, smoking cigarettes outdoors while speculating about the weather. I think pain and trauma heal when you start mixing them up with life.
There’s heaviness for me these October days before Bernie’s memorial, I can feel the extra layers. But these sensations are mixed with the sunlight and the dogs scampering among the colorful leaves, digging up dahlias, and a return to South Dakota to take in other people’s loss and catastrophe.
Pain is healed when it gets placed in a bigger context, in birth and death, jokes and the play of children, the frolics of new dogs, tears over what we had and didn’t have, and the sense that something continues even when you don’t.
And when a Lakota elder holds the hand of Greta Thunberg and blesses her. There they are, reaching across continents, cultures, and generations: the young Swedish teenager who can’t rest thinking of all that is dying around us, and the Lakota elder at Cheyenne River Reservation, encouraging us all to be the voice for those who have no voice. Both don’t look away from the suffering inside and out, and then put all of it in service of life.