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Holocaust remembrance

 

Remembrance is supposed to be good for a community, but much depends how those who remember actually remember.

The Daily Beast reports on Mike Pence’s way of remembering the Holocaust:

“Many Jews have pointed out that Pence, who is an evangelical Christian, imposes a Christian narrative on the Holocaust, comparing victims of the Holocaust to Jesus. His tweet also paints Jewish victims of the Holocaust as martyrs for Israel, as if every Jew who died was an ardent Zionist, deliberately laying his or her life down for a future Jewish state. Pence treats the Holocaust as a holy validation of evangelical support for Israel. Many American evangelicals believe that Israel has a role to play in the apocalyptic end times. The Holocaust, then, for Pence becomes a kind of providential working out of God’s divine plan for the Jews. Israel makes the Holocaust worth it, at least from an evangelical perspective. Hallelujah.

“Pence is unusually blunt in framing the Holocaust as Christian resurrection narrative, but he’s not the only one to try to turn Auschwitz into inspiration porn. The majority of high-profile films and fictional narratives about the Holocaust focus on upbeat endings and salvation. Films like Defiance (2008), The Zookeeper’s Wife ( 2017) and, most famously Schindler’s List (1993) all tell stories about people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. They all end, ritually, with text informing the viewer how many people the protagonists rescued from death in the camps.”

If we want to reflect on the ways that rituals mobilize human memory, we need to take into account some basic distinctions, for instance, short- and long-term memory; muscle, or sensory, memory; emotional and intellectual memory.

When we say that someone has a good memory, we usually mean that he or she is quick at retrieving stored information such as names and faces, directions to work, or the contents of grocery lists. But when we memorialize, is that what we’re doing: recalling information?

In ritualized memorials, who or what is doing the remembering? Each individual? The group? The ritual itself?

And what about forgetting—is it always bad and remembering always good? Alzheimer’s patients can’t remember, and that is bad. But PTSD patients can’t stop remembering, and that too is bad. So we might want to distinguish functional from dysfunctional forgetting, functional from dysfunctional remembering.

That communities and individuals utilize their memories during and after ritual events is obvious enough. After all, memory is required for almost every human activity. But rituals are not exclusively about remembering. They are also about envisioning. (This is the less than perfect word I use to signal ritual’s capacity to look toward the future.) We humans often treat as memories things that we never knew in the first place. I cannot, literally speaking, remember the sacrifices made in the Great War. (In case you’ve “forgotten,” that was WWI.) Why? Because I wasn’t there. I experienced both world wars vicariously—by hearing stories, seeing films, and reading books.

What I actually remember (or forget) are old photos, war stories, newsreels, and memorial ceremonies. Even though commemorations may be indirectly about ancestors or heroes, they are directly about representations. Even if names remain engraved on tombstones forever (and many don’t), the dead will, eventually and inevitably, be forgotten as individuals. Someday, in the future, no one will be alive who remembers the actual people who died in the Holocaust, Norway on the 22nd of July 2011, or in the United States on the 11th of September 2001. Even if people, declaring that they will never forget, continue to memorialize these historic events, they will eventually forget.

We have memorials not only because we remember, but also because we forget. Most memorials, most of the time, are actually acts of imagining, not remembering, the dead. Eventually, all that remains are the collective dead, the ancestors, whom we know only by deploying our ritualistic and artistic imaginations retrospectively, toward the past.

I’m not saying that we invent the dead, but we do imagine and then utilize them for purposes they could not possibly have anticipated. However surely the dead once were, they are now made up. The dead become fictive personages whom we deploy in the present to help us wade into the deep waters of the future.

Assuming we remember, the next question, the bigger one, is what  we will do in the future? In The Night Trilogy Elie Wiesel writes, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

 

We croak?

Want to be reminded fives times a day that you’re gonna croak?

We Croak will do that for you.

Presumably based on an old Bhutanese saying about the secret of happiness, the app sends you wise sayings or poetry or a line to remind you that you should contemplate death at least five times daily.

A spiritual protein diet.

If the app promised to kill at least five pieces of email in my inbox, I’d sign up.

If five times a day isn’t enough, there are t-shirts. That way you can forget your own death (unless you read your own t-shirts upside down or backwards in the mirror). This way your friends and colleagues can contemplate their becroakment in the mirror of your t-shirt.

In “The App That Reminds You You’re Going to Die” (Atlantic) Bianca Bosker writes:

I’m eating lunch with my husband one afternoon when WeCroak presents a line from the Zen poet Gary Snyder: “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.”

I welcomed these grisly reminders into my life in the hope that WeCroak, along with half a dozen other mindfulness apps, could help transform my iPhone from a stressful distraction into a source of clarity and peace. According to a study by a research firm called Dscout, Americans check their phone an average of 76 times a day for a cumulative two and a half hours—and while many would like to cut back, simple willpower isn’t always enough. Amid growing concerns over our phone fixation, Silicon Valley has, in typical fashion, proposed technology as the solution; there are now more than 1,000 mindfulness apps designed to help us disconnect.

A thousand mindfulness apps? How mindful is that?

Probably more mindful than 76 times a day.

When the celebrant dies, you what?

During holidays, you could call the labor “just cooking” or “just cleaning” or even “just fretting.” But if the family gathers, laughs, argues, reconnects, and remembers what it often forgets, maybe you should call the work something else.

Whoever engineers, or designs, the event is a celebrant, a ritual-maker. Describe the job this way, to remind yourself of its importance.

But then, what if the ritual-maker dies?

You do what?

Listen to the whole story:

For even more of the story and pictures, click here.

Big questions 1

When the kids were little, we began tossing them big questions.Where are your dead grandparents? Where do babies come from? What is a good person? What’s bad? If the house were on fire and you had to grab one thing, what would it be? These videoed interviews took various forms: storytelling, metaphysical speculation, flights of fantasy, competition, bullshit and blather–exactly like adult conversations.

Actually, their conversations upstage adult conversations.

Nearing 30 can the “kids” do better now?

We all get smarter as we grow up, right?

The day the clock stopped

Norwegians sometimes refer to July 22, 2011, as their “9/11,” the day their perceptions were changed forever by an act of violence. An assassin exploded a car bomb beneath a government building in Oslo, then ferried to Utoya island, where he hunted down and shot Labour Party youth attending a summer camp. In the end, seventy-seven people were killed, and over three hundred injured. Norwegians sometimes say about the assassin that he was “one of us.”

This is a video about how the event was being commemorated in 2015.

Many viewers comment on the music. People have trouble identifying the instrument. One person wrote that the performance made his hair stand on end. Another commented on how perfectly appropriate to the subject matter it was. Another noted how different it is from the current Norwegian response: silence. The harmonica solo is an improvisation by Bryn Scott-Grimes at York University in 2011, a few months before the July 22 attacks.You can watch the original performance here.

Another experimental video that combines text and image: I Have Feathers Enough, and Toys Too.

Making it up as we go

In 2012, Cailleah imagined I might die while she was in Japan. She worried that I would never know what she could become, so we improvised a ritual with her in Toronto and I in Waterloo. Then, she made this film. I didn’t croak (although I almost did in 2013). We’re both still going, making it up as we go. Soon we will make a follow-up film to this one.

How shall we commemorate lives unjustly cut short?

When you have the time and freedom to circle the deep, that’s glorious. When you don’t have either the time or the freedom–when you’re draped over the edge by another hand–that’s dreadful. When someone else cuts your life short by lynching, angry questions burn the air. The Equal Justice Initiative is building the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, near the site of a slave auction block. (Montgomery has 59 sites commemorating the Confederacy.) The memorial will include a lynching museum to commemorate the 4000 racial lynchings that happened in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War II (1877-1950).

 

The Community Remembrance Project of the EJI is collecting soil samples from lynching sites and will incorporate them into the museum.

 

An historical view of the origins of lynching culture:

How shall we question our big questions?

This bit of musing is an experiment in querying your big question.

 

Ron is me. Don is Ron playing the Devil.

 

Ron: Am I going to die?

Don: Of course. Silly question. Get serious.

Ron: Okay, when will I die?

Don: You really want to know that? Don’t you get anxious just waiting for the bus or train to arrive? Just think how paralyzed you’d be if you knew when you were going to croak.

Ron: Knowing when would help me prepare.

Don: Would it? If you knew you’d go tomorrow, would that help? You’d panic, wouldn’t you? Or if you knew your day was coming in 25 years, you’d do what? Get lazy?

Ron: True, panicking or loafing. What’s the use in either?

Don: Maybe you have a better question.

Ron: Like, How will I die?

Don: If I said, By auto accident, you’d…?

Ron: I don’t know. Quit driving?

Don: Right. So then you’d get hit from behind, that’s all. Well, suppose I said, You’ll die of Alzheimer’s, starting next year and running for 10 years, just to grind down your family. What then?

Ron: Dread. I’d have great dread for them and for me, but at least I could prepare.

Don: You don’t have to know how you’d die in order to prepare. Since you’ll never know the answers to future questions, why bother with the future? You could prepare now without knowing.

Ron: I’m wondering what I would do. I mean, day to day, what would I do to prepare for the Big Day? Probably the same thing I’m doing now.

Don: Better, but you sneaked the future back in. I’m going to press this buzzer every time you do that (a loud wrong-answer squawk). And what’s this “die right” stuff? What is it? And you get to pick that do you?

Ron: Well, I hope to have a good death.

Don: Hope (wrong-answer buzzer)?

Ron: Hoping for a good death then, how shall I live now? How’s that?

Don: Better, but you could just drop the front part, the hoping bit, eh?

Ron: So, you’d be happy with, How will I live now?

Don: There’s more resolve in that. But what kind of an answer does that question require? A description? A scene? An account of daily events? Or just a set of abstract virtues, you know, a good, true, and beautiful life following Plato or a trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly life following the Boy Scouts? Let me ask you a question, Is there a big difference between the life you’re living now and the one you’d live if you were acutely aware of your impeding death? How big is the gap?

Ron: Not too big. I’m living the life I want to live.

Don: Is that really true?

Ron: Pretty close.

Don: Such bullshit. What are you really saying is that you don’t have a big question at all?

Ron: Wouldn’t that be ironic since I’m hawking Big Questions, but I don’t have a BQ!

Don: Why bother even asking about death? Get a life.

Ron: I’m approaching 75. I am trying to ask an age-appropriate question.

Don: (laughs)

Ron: Okay, let’s start again. These are real questions: Will my wife ever finish her book? Will my kids ever earn a living doing something they love, something meaningful?

Don: Those are their questions. Let them ask them. Ask your own damned questions.

Ron: Well, their questions are mine, sorta.

Don: Sorta? Are you sure your hidden question isn’t something like, How can they possibly get along without me?

Ron: (laughs) Maybe, but they are already doing that. They’ll be fine without me, sadder for a while, but fine. I want to come back to “age-appropriate.”

Don: I thought you were joking.

Ron: I was, but, look, I’ve lived a pretty full life, not perfect, but full. It feels like I’ve lived a couple of lives actually. If I died today, I’d die happy.

Don: You’re a pain in the ass. So why bother questioning then? You are a man-without-a-question. What a lonely soul!

Ron: I have lots of questions. Querying is my life’s motor. No more questions, no more life. I’m curiosity-driven. I want to know what’s over the next hill.

Don: Future stuff again (wrong-answer buzzer).

Ron: Find. I don’t know whether the Big Drop-Off is over the next rise, but I’ll risk scouting it out.

Don: While you’re still alive, right?

Ron: Right. I’m a 1-3-2 person.

Don: A what?

Ron: I jump from the beginning to the end, then I have to back to do, or re-do, the middle.

Don: Trouble is you can’t go back and re-do your 30s or 40s.

Ron: Yes, that’s my life’s problem. But I’m, what shall I say, in mid-late life?

Don: That would be funny if it weren’t such absolute crap. Let me make sure I get this straight. You want to creep up the edge of the canyon, peer over it, see the bottom, and live to tell about it, right?

Ron: Right.

Don: How do you propose to do that?

Ron: Imagine. How else?

Don: What do you imagine? Heaven? Hell?

Ron: No, nothing like that. In heaven, Which wife would I be married to? Singing all day, you gotta be kidding. Eating fried catfish all day, no thanks. Wing feathers everywhere. Gold streets hurting my feet. I can’t even imagine, much believe such poor imagined scenes. And your place, well hell, if God lets you get away with that, he/she is not God. So I imagine I am sand, dirt, sucked up by plants and trees. No thought. No heart. No breath.

Don: Isn’t that scary? Sad?

Ron: No, none of that.

Don: At peace?

Ron: No peace. No war.

Don: That’s not much. Are you running out of imaginative juice?

Ron: (begins to sing) “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play peanuckle on your snout.”

Don: I see, saved by your childhood antics. You probably chased girls with that song.

Ron: True, but it reminds me that I’d become compost, plant food, fish food, universe food.

Don: Universe food? That’s good. I like it.

Ron: Great, so my big question must be, How to imagine my post-life as universe food? What’s my taste? My smell? My smell after being eaten?

Don: (presses wrong-answer button) Now you did it.

Ron: Did what?

Don: Fell off the edge. You’re cheering yourself up with scatological humor? Food-become-shit, come on.

Ron: It’s a Grimes thing.

Don: Get over it. That crap won’t help you on this side or the other.

Ron: Okay, okay. What’s my post-death life? How to imagine it? Hmm, I biodegrade into beautiful red and gold and white desert sand. I’m in my version of heaven now.

Don: Just to remind you, it’s hot there. No water. Sounds like you in that other place—with me.

Ron: No, in hell you’d have consciousness, feelings, regret, pain. As desert sand, I’d just be.

Don: Sure, until a dunebuggy ran over you or until you landed in the bottom of an aquarium with goldfish pooping on you from above. No, even the deserts get messed with.

Ron: Don’t bother me. I am being sand. Windblown.

Don: Until someone runs an atomic test over top of you.

Ron: But would I care?

Don: You should, but even if you wouldn’t, you do now. You want to be pure sand, no radiation, no dunebuggies, but whatever you are, it won’t last. It’s all temporary. This life is temporary. The next life is just as temporary.

Ron: I’m ignoring you. My body is burned, and my ashes are scattered off the rim of Canyonlands, and I am one with…

Don: You are not one with anything. You are daydreaming. You’d might be alone for a bit, until some noisy kid shouted over you to hear the echo.

Ron: Now that’s a good question. As canyon sand, can I listen? I am listening sand. How can I keep listening?

Don: You’re lost. You don’t know which end is up. You’re distracting yourself by being sand in a silly canyon sandbox. See you later, or never, which is the same thing.

***

Here the dialogue ends, but the night I wrote it, I fell to dreaming. In one dream Susan brings home relatives to live with us; we have such a big fight that it ends the marriage. In the dream that followed, all I see are heroin needles and tiny bottles; I am alone, a heroin addict.

Just to be clear, our marriage is not on the rocks, and I’m not an addict. Still, what’s up here? Imagining myself as listening canyon sand, even though Don the Devil tells me that can’t happen, is for a few minutes comforting. But circling the question has thrown up some hard stuff from deep sleep. I would actually be afraid if the relatives were to move in, but that’s not an ultimate fear. I have no fear of becoming a heroin addict, so that dream is not about the dope but about the final state: being alone. What if I were conscious and alone in the universe? That’s scary, but the presence of a god is just as scary. I like the idea of being part of a dead family, but as soon as I ask, Who is in the family? that idea is scary too.

So, what’s the lesson here? Circumambulate your question a few times and see what you dream.

Bury me where?

I have retired five times. Now I’m blogging about the little things to which life and death appear to be tethered. Some call Big Questions “religious;” others, “spiritual.” Both terms are troublesome, so I try to avoid them. I don’t believe in blogs any more than I believe in what most people call religion. Too many blogs are off the top of the head. Here I hope to ruminate rather than spew. I have nothing to lose or gain, not tenure (I was once a professor of religious studies), not a salary, not entries on my CV. I am now a Professor of Nothing. Entries in your resume won’t get you to heaven (even if you believe in such a place). As a professor, I wrote lots of questions, often in green ink, in the margins of student papers. “Oh, you got the Grimes-green-ink treatment.” My kids used to say that I like the word “query.” I do. A query is a big question persistently circumambulated. You circle the question because it bird-dogs you, inspires you, or drives you around the bend. So you walk it down, into the ground.

skeleton on bike b&wAs a kid sitting in a sandbox on the high plains of New Mexico, I talked to a craggy, stunted Mr. Peartree, and it (or the sandbox) endowed me with thorny questions and a quirky imagination. Now, as an old guy riding a bike with a well oiled chain, I’m still rolling down the Iron Horse Trail in Kitchener-Waterloo. It connects with the Trans-Canada Trail, supposedly the longest in the world when it’s finished.

In 1974 I crossed the border from the Homeland, the God-blessed United States of America. I was not a draft dodger, although I would have been if my lottery number had been called. Now I carry two passports.

I became a religious studies professor because I’ve long enjoyed stalking the the big questions and the metaphors that make up the universe. I study ritual because I am attracted to it, repulsed by it, and don’t understand it. This is the home page of a blog about little things that link to big things. It’s about home, the place where I live, even though I’m not very good at living here.

Where is here? Ideally, home is always right here: this page, the place where you are sitting or standing right now. That’s straight Zen (which I practiced for 20 years). That’s how I’d like to live. But I don’t. Really, home is too often back there or over there. You left it, or you’re not quite there yet. Where is home? That is a big question, often one with no single or easy answer. I hesitate to label this my “home” page, because, as a matter of fact, I have another. But that is just a glorified CV, nothing more. I don’t live there. I hope that’s not all of me.

Many of us have other homes or homelands. Some of us have nothing we’d call home. Too many of us have no homes except streets and parks or bus stations–if you’re willing to call those places home. For 40 years I’ve lived here in Waterloo, Ontario, which is joined at the hip with Kitchener. But K-W still doesn’t feel like home even though the kids were born on the living room floor, and dead or handmade things inhabit the depths of the yard. Not feeling at home isn’t the fault of neighbors or city councils. It’s my own problem, although I’m not the only one who has it. Kitchener used to be called Berlin, but it changed its name since, during World War II, it couldn’t sell shoes stamped “Made in Berlin.” And Waterloo, well, Napoleon met his in Belgium. I seem to be meeting mine here.

In the basement there are still old cardboard boxes from previous moves, as if one day my wife and I are going to pack up and pedal toward the Rocky Mountains. Surely, you too are about to leave for somewhere. If not, what’s wrong with you?

Do I want to be buried here in K-W? I sometimes ask Susan, my wife, knows the question is rhetorical. We both know the answer: Not on your life! O bury me not in Mount Hope Cemetery (although we enjoy biking through it). First there’s the question of burial (death is not a question), then there’s the question of how the postmortem deed will be accomplished, by fire or dirt-and-worm. I don’t want my ashes scattered in the Region of Waterloo, where I’m most likely to die, any more than I want them scattered outside Clovis, New Mexico, where I grew up. So where is home? Where should they put me when it’s time?

Maybe scatter me at Grimes Corner, which is near Madrid, half a hour from Santa Fe on the back road to Albuquerque.

I have to ask myself, in the interests of economy if nothing else: Why not along the Iron Horse Trail, which is just a few blocks away. I ride or walk it almost daily. When someone inquires why I do it, I reply, “Why else, to stay alive.” At first, my quip was ironic. Now it’s not.

bakfiets-nijlandIf this community would wake up the Spirit of the Iron Horse Trail, fine, I’d be willing to exit from here. Assure me that my remains (and yours too, if you like) can be biked in procession down the Iron Horse Trail in a Dutch bakfeits, with big masks dancing around, and I’ll consent to cross over from this very place.

How to keep your dead family photographically alive?

Susan talks about downsizing. I’m not ready for such a move even though people our age are doing it. For one thing, it would cost us more, not less, to move into a condo. For another, I am still capable of maintaining the house, so enjoy it. In a condo I’d have fewer reasons to get up out of this fabulous writing chair. Even if you have only lived in a bachelor apartment, after a year or two you realize how much crap you accumulate. When I’m tired of moving it around or dusting it, it’s crap. When I’m enjoying it, or even when I think I might use it in the future, it’s a resource, a comfort, a prized possession. We’d have to dispense with several truckloads of stuff. Even if we’re still physically capable of packing, lifting, and dumping it all, why go to all that trouble until you have to? Susan says that means it’ll all fall to her.

This morning, with Susan out of town, I started going through slides. Most are pre-Susan, so she doesn’t have any interest in them. If I were sorting family photos, pictures you can hold in your hand, she would care mightily.

Old slide: Dad, winding up his 8mm. camera

It’s easy to feel sad, then get angry at Kodak (let “Kodak” stand for all electronics manufacturers that build obsolescence into their products).

Old slide: Mom, camera-in-hand

Kodak spawned the slide-tray technology that lured us into shooting slides instead of pictures. Since slides were shown on a screen and were bigger than 4″ x 6″, they were more dramatic than photos. The lights went down, and the family gathered. We dads bought into the notion that photos and slides were “memories.” But gone are the days of slide projectors.

Most of the time, in the cosmic scheme of things, it hardly matters that you are always falling behind the technological curve. Some categories of slides were easier to dispense with than others. Buildings, gone. Colorful flowers, gone. Sunsets, into the bucket. What a lot of landscapes, into the trash. How easy it is now to let go of them. Their beauty is of little consequence as you circle the edge. Even vacation slides were not all that difficult to toss. Vacations were just vacations unless something significant happened to the family during one of them.

But when technological change costs your family memories, that’s immoral. Having to toss slides (last year it was CDs), I began to realize that they were semblances of memories, not memories. They were memory-triggers, mnemonic devices, not actual memories. Still, as I put slide after slide to death, it felt like, “Ah, there goes my old life, my pre-Susan, pre-Cailleah, pre-Bryn life.” It felt good to trash some of those slides, but others hurt. So I projected a few of the slides onto a rusted only screen, then shot them into digital eternity. But what suffering my kids will have when the technicians trash jpgs, not eternal after all.

Old slide: Ron, age 17, running a TV camera