Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Compartmentalization

“We have always stayed close to home…..everyone of us. Nothing changes. That’s why when you came into our home, it was a real novelty. We had never had anyone else come into our home or our family like you did.” The context was a quiet, heart-to-heart conversation with one of my Spanish “sisters” after Christmas dinner. I had mentioned to Gloria that it was really great that all of the family had remained close to each other, here in Barcelona. While some of the children – nieces and nephews – had chosen to go abroad, most had returned. To me, that was an admirable quality. To Gloria, it was not quite so: she found it a bit too boring.

As I listened to her talk about her family – my adopted family – I realized that unlike their life, mine has been a patchwork of experiences. It set me to thinking. How has this life of mine played itself out? Maybe it’s because I’m dealing with my resume a lot lately or maybe it’s because I’ve been fooling around with some photo albums but whatever the case, I realized the other day that my life is like a series of blocks, built one upon the other. Or, perhaps my life is better seen as a series of photographs, each representing a certain time-frame of my life. One thing for sure: it’s a highly compartmentalized life. And, while there are a few threads running through the entire time, they aren’t as numerous as I would sometimes wish for.

There are the “Early Years,” the times growing up as the third and youngest by many years. Those are “Early Years – Methuen” and “Early Years – Andover.” Then, there’s the “Spain Year.” That’s where the Broggi family enters the picture. Then, there are the “Oberlin Years.” Then, the “Married/Teaching Years,” the “Seminary/Pastorate Years.” “The Raising a Family Years” lead back into the “School Years: Canterbury, Forest Ridge, Cairo, Moscow, Tokyo.” The Broggi family and Barcelona wind themselves throughout the many snapshots. Only in the Seminary/Pastorate and Raising-a-Family snapshots do the Broggis and Barcelona recede a bit.

Of course, there are people who are present through many of those years, too: Debby, Greg, Nate, John, Paul, Mother and Dad. But, apart from them, each snapshot, each time frame has its own cast of characters. And I walk from snapshot to snapshot like some computer-generated figure who has the capacity to walk in and out of still-life photos.

It’s the fragmentation, the compartmentalization that I dislike the most about all this. It’s just all too fragmented sometimes and I find myself yearning for a bit more continuity, more carry-over from one frame to the next. I guess that’s why the Broggis keep figuring into the equation as much as they do.

One other thing about this compartmentalization…..it tends to freeze people in time. Or, at least, I want that to be the case. On Christmas Day, just a couple of days ago now, while having coffee with all the Broggi family, a man came to the door. He walked into the living room and everyone rose to greet him. Who was he? I wondered. There was something oddly familiar about him but I just couldn’t place him…..that is, until I heard him speak. It was José Francisco, the grandson of Tata Ignacia, that elderly nanny of the Broggis who took me into her heart during the years that I was here so often, back in the 1960’s and ‘70s. José Francisco was just a young boy then, 10 or 12 years old. The other day, as I struggled to adjust my mental image of him, to allow him to age those 35 years gracefully before my eyes, I was reminded of how Tata Ignacia and her daughter, Tata Josefina, had disappeared from this present snapshot. They had both died about 15 years ago, before I had been able to get back to see them once more. But the timbre of José Francisco’s voice, the cadence of his Aragonese Castillian, evoked powerful memories of The Tatas, of how they had cared for me, laughed with me, watched over me in those years when I was here as a student. And I realized how much I miss them still.

As I search for similes for this compartmentalized life-picture, the Spanish fan (abanico) comes to mind. Perhaps its association with Asia helps at this point in time, too. The fan, when all folded up is an inconsequential piece of wood and paper. But, in a graceful dance or a with a quiet flick of the wrist, the fan unfolds, piece by piece, fold by fold. And, on the best fans, a picture emerges from those various pieces of thin, translucent paper. Each segment is beautiful in its way but, once opened all the way, there is a unity and a beauty to the larger picture. Perhaps that’s how I need to see my life. Not so much compartmentalized as inter-linked. Each segment has its own beauty, its own place, but together they form a visual and functional unity.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Christmas Thoughts

The last, and only other, time I have ever been in Barcelona for Christmas was in 1966. It was not a happy experience for me. I was living at the time with one of my schoolmates, Peter Durant, with a French family. They lived somewhere up near General Mitre but I can’t remember now exactly where any more than I can remember their names. Poimbeuf, I think it was. I can, however, remember their faces and their voices. The father had had some sort of stroke and could barely speak. Probably in his late 40’s back then, he seemed even then a bitter and empty person. The mother was a loud, heavily painted woman – rough, bossy, and brash. There was a son in his early 20’s but he seemed as bitter and distant as his father and was hardly ever at home.

Classes at the Institute had ended a few days before Christmas and we had a few days between then and the beginning of our 2-week trip to Madrid and southern Spain. I’m sure the school officials were thinking that the few days of “down time” would be spent relaxing and enjoying our Spanish families but for Peter and me that would not be the case.

Christmas was far, far away from that chilly apartment. Except for the Gallic accented Spanish, it would have been a scene from Dickens. For me, it was a long, long way from home. The farthest I had ever, ever felt.

In Franco’s Spain in the ‘60s, life was tightly controlled and very definitely behind the times. Those were years when to even phone home took days, not seconds or minutes. Oh, how I wanted to hear my parents’ voices! If I couldn’t see the Christmas tree, or taste Mom’s Christmas cookies, or hang up my Christmas stocking, then at least I could talk with Mom and Dad.

I’ll never forget walking to the local “telefonica.” That was the place where one went to place an overseas call, where dark wood phone booths lined one wall and patiently hopeful customers, waiting for their connections to be made, lined the other. I had been there once before, on Thanksgiving, so I thought that I knew the system. But, I hadn’t factored in the Christmas rush. As I politely asked to book my call to the USA that Christmas Eve, a rather distracted employee informed me that it would take “at least 24 hours.” Perhaps I had heard that wrong. My Spanish was still not up to speed. But, no. It would be “por lo menos” (at least!) 24 hours before I could get a line. Twenty-four hours from then, Christmas would be past and I would be on a bus to Madrid.

I turned and left that now stifling office, denied any chance to hear the voices I longed to hear that Christmas Eve. I remember distinctly the short walk back to the cold apartment. Even more, I remember crying myself to sleep that night. It was one of the saddest and loneliest nights of my life.

Almost 40 years have passed since that night. The world has changed so much and that scene in the “telefonica” will never happen again. Instead, I carry a tiny cell phone in my pocket that puts me in touch with virtually every corner of the world.

But, here again in Barcelona I’m alone. This time by choice but alone nonetheless. The people I care most about are either dead or half a world away. My adopted Barcelona family fills part of the void but not all. What’s missing are the voices, the embraces, the warm exchanges and the familiar foods. None of that comes with a cell phone. None of that diminishes with time. Choices have been made and no choice is without it down side. There are prices to be paid for each choice I have made in my life. But, what is the price of solitude? And loneliness is not far behind. This time around, however, it won’t take me quite so much by surprise. But, the Christmas loneliness still exists and takes its toll these many decades later.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Hiroshima Memories

I have now been to two of the world’s most terrifying places: Auschwitz and Hiroshima. I visited the former almost ten years ago now. My trip to Hiroshima was just two weeks ago.

To drive through the streets of Hiroshima today, one would never suspect that it was the site of total devastation sixty years ago. Today, Hiroshima is a completely modern city with wide streets, nicely kept buildings and all the trappings of modern day conveniences. It is a strange façade for the place of one of history’s most tragic events. I made the pilgrimage to Hiroshima with 23 ninth grade students from my school and a handful of adults. It was an educational field trip that probably none of us will forget.

The mere mention of Hiroshima brings to mind the mushroom cloud of the first atomic bomb, the Atomic Age, the obliteration of a city. Wandering through the Peace Park which marks the center of the devastation of that day in August, 1945, it’s hard to imagine the horror of the event. There are quiet memorials to the thousands who perished – they estimate that more than 160,000 people were killed that day or shortly thereafter from the effects of the bomb – and there is an Eternal Flame, burning until the day when all nuclear weapons are destroyed. A simple cenotaph is the focal point where the names of all the victims are enshrined. Bouquets of flowers are arranged in front of the monument.

But perhaps the most striking and most memorable image is the A-Dome…..the shell of an exposition building that miraculously survived the attack. It is the icon of Hiroshima and stands in silent testimony to the devastation of that day.

As we wandered through the Peace Park, one of the students said, “It’s hard not to keep looking up (into the sky)!” What must it have been like to have heard the planes coming in that morning and to look up to see the explosion that would wipe out a city? We learned so much in our day at the Peace Park:

• Even though Hiroshima was the center of much of Japan’s war industry, it was “saved” from bombing by the Americans. Saved, that is, for a more gruesome fate. It seems the designers of this new atomic bomb wanted a “virgin” site where they could see the true effects of the bomb. So, Hiroshima was targeted and lulled into thinking that it was actually going to see the war through without a hit. I wondered: Was Mengele that twisted, as he carried out his own peculiar and hideous experiments on individuals in Nazi Germany? Were we Americans and the Allies any better as we plotted and calculated the deaths of human subjects in this “virgin city?”
• On that fateful day 60 years ago, there were thousands of middle-school aged students working in the city, virtually all of the students were killed in the bombing.
• Of the thousands and thousands who were killed that day. Many lost their lives not from the initial “hit” but from having run into the city to help those who were hit directly, little realizing that the fallout would have equally devastating consequences as the initial blast.
• There was, of course, a second attack…..just a few days later. On Nagasaki, an equally “virgin city” targeted by the Allies. This dual hit broke the Japanese and the war ended almost immediately.
• Now, 60 years later, the bomb still takes its toll as those who survived have been hit with cancer in vastly higher proportion than the rest of the population.

The evening of our walk through the Peace Park, we had the rare opportunity to meet with and hear from a survivor of the bomb. She was only a school girl on that day, almost the exact same age as the students I accompanied on this pilgrimage. She, along with thousands of others her age, had been pressed into service to help with Japan’s war efforts. It was a miracle that she survived. She described the horrors of watching her friends succumb to the incredible heat of the fires that were triggered by the blast. Her testimony was riveting, sad, painful to hear. She told how it had taken years for her to realize that she couldn’t continue to hate those who had been responsible for this destruction. Her story was one of good overcoming evil. It was a story that none of us will ever forget.

None of us slept well in Hiroshima. Many of the students reported that they had had bad dreams. It’s not surprising. There is an odd feeling about the city where so many perished so horribly. Unlike Auschwitz, Hiroshima has been rebuilt, reborn, and renewed. But still, under the façade, there is haunting feeling that all is not well there. The souls of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children seem to hover over that place.

A week or so after my visit to Hiroshima, I met another A-bomb survivor, this time in Tokyo. She is one of the neighbors of our school back in Tokyo. I told her that I had been to Hiroshima and she was anxious to know what I had thought, how it had affected me. I told her that I had been made ever more aware of the way we humans can be so inhumane. There was a silence as my neighbor thought…..”Yes, you know the one thing I will never understand: It was bad enough that they dropped the bomb on us in Hiroshima, but why did they do it again in Nagasaki? There should not have been two!”

Today, the citizens of Hiroshima plead with all who come to visit the city in the hopes that nuclear weapons will be banished from the planet. While I understand their pleas, I think it’s a futile wish. The inhumanity of our race will continue, I’m afraid. There’s no banning an idea, even if all the weapons are destroyed.

Hiroshima stands as a living reminder of one of the most terrible days in human history. From the ashes of that day, a new city has arisen but still the memories persist. Reminders that we can still be brutally inhumane but that, despite that tragic flaw in our human condition, we somehow manage to pick ourselves up and do all that we can to live, to overcome the horrors of our past.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Meeting with a Princess

It was more than I could ever imagine: On Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th -- the "day that will live in infamy" -- I was chatting with a Princess, one of the Japanese Imperial Family!

The occasion was Nishimachi's annual participation in the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at Tokyo Station. As in previous years, the occasion was sponsored by "Refugees International -- Japan," an international group with a strong chapter in Tokyo. The president of the organization is the parent of one of my students and four of our 9th graders were invited to offer short speeches highlighting the plight of refugees. The honored guest at the ceremony was Her Imperial Highness (HIH) Princess Akishino, the wife of the #2 son of the Emperor. (She is the Japanese equivalent of the Duchess of York.)

As the ranking member of the Nishimachi delegation, I was assigned a seat in the front row of dignitaries and asked to appear 30 minutes prior to the arrival of HIH.

Precisely on time, at high noon, HIH's arrival was announced and in quiet dignity she made her entrance. What is one to expect from Japanese royalty? Sparkling tiara? Paris fashion? In what I have come to know as understated, quiet Japanese elegance, Princess Akishino entered the hall, graciously nodding to the assembled dignitaries and guests. Each slight nod of her head towards part of the audience was enough to produce dozens of bowing subjects. She turned towards me, nodded graciously, and, of course, this liberal Democrat American bowed low and somberly along with everyone around me.

Princess Akishino sat and listened to beautifully performed sacred Christmas carols. She stood to receive a bouquet of flowers presented by three absolutely adorable Nishimachi Kindergarten students. As they youngsters approached with utmost caution and respect, the Princess stooped to their level and spoke quietly with each child. Their faces glowed as they left her side! They had met a Princess!!

Our Nishimachi students spoke eloquently and passionately about the plight of refugees and the need to reach out to them, to share our wealth with them. And then, it was time for more music and it was announced that "the Princess is on a tight schedule so she will only be able to greet those seated in the front row." MY row!

The ushers came to show us to our place in line, so that we could approach the Princess in a quiet and orderly fashion. I was, it seemed, at the end of the line. Plenty of time to study exactly how to greet a Princess. At least 5 others were in line before me, most of them Japanese. All of a sudden, I found myself wondering just what was the right way to greet a Princess. Bow, of course, but speak to her? Shake hands with her? They never prepared me for this at Andover!!!

And then, there I was, looking at a Princess! Her smile about melted me! She was the epitome of elegance. Dressed in an understated but obviously exquisitely tailored wool suit. Pearls but no tiara. But, that smile! I bowed with every ounce of respect I could, hoping that I didn't look stupid or awkward. And, as I brought myself erect, I saw her hand.....extended to me. I took it and she shook it daintily......"Your students were so well-spoken. You must tell them how touched I was by their words." Her English was impeccable, unaccented....perfect. "We are all very proud of them, Your Highness," I responded. "We are grateful that you have come to be with us this morning. Your presence here will help many needy people." "I am honored to be here," she responded. And, that smile!

She made her way around the circle of the crowd, nodding her head and receiving the reverence of the crowd. No clapping, no shouting, just the quiet whir and clicks of cameras and the ever-so-reverent bowing of hundreds of people. In a society where bowing is the basic, most traditional and most complete gesture of respect, royalty doesn't bow. They simply nod....and the rest of the world bows.

I was struck by the power of royalty to focus our attention. Much is written and spoken about the unifying power of royalty, whether elected "royalty" like we have in the USA or the heritary royalty of Europe or Asia. There is, indeed, a powerful aura that surrounds royal heads of state and their families. Even the most cynical observor would have been hard-pressed to miss it on Tuesday.

As I watched HIH retreat back into her limousine, I knew that I had had an experience of a life time. One that I would never have imagined having. And it didn't escape my notice that it had all happened on the anniversary of a day that Americans of my parents' generation had celebrated as one of the blackest days in modern times.....when Japanese attacked American soil. The irony of my brush with the Japanese Imperial Family on this "day of infamy" was, however, an experience that will light up my life for many years.