Wordsanctuary Revisited

Musings of a writer-teacher-counselor.

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Location: Cleveland, Ohio, United States

I am inquisitive and have worked in writing, editing, and teaching. I am a citizen of the USA and also concerned about the world. This is an addendum to my original blog, Wordsanctuary. That's at www.wordsanctuary.blogspot.com Please check out my column at www.insidehighered.com, "A Kinder Campus." Click on Career Advice to find it. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Cleveland's Heights

I grew up on the first floor of a duplex on Coventry Road, but my writer’s imagination was sparked in the third floor attic of that house. Other children have their getaways too—stuffy, overly hot, achingly cold, yet private and far enough away from family clamor to allow for meditation on profound subjects, or at least to hold a marker without fear of jostling. The attic is where I painstakingly lettered the poster for my fourth grade project about the Mayan calendar. It’s where I illustrated the mysteries of cells for a demanding junior high school teacher. It’s where I researched Gothic architecture, with a book I grew to love so much I never returned it to the library.(I did pay for it, claiming it was lost.) It’s where I heard screeching tires when our beloved APL dog was hit by a car. But Happy recuperated, a bit of luck. Just a small pair of windows, and three stories, separated me from the world.

Almost weekly, I liked to walk to Forest Hills (Rockefeller) Park to stop at the pond our family called “Moon Lake”—because I once saw the moon’s reflection in it, coined the term, and the name stuck. There were elm, oak, maple, and beech trees I thought of as woods and a hill scaled slowly even by my scrambling, faster, older sisters, and which I climbed with steady determination as early as the age of one (according to family legend). No wonder my baby shoes are bronzed.
Why climb? The reward was a lovely, not-usually-misty view of Cleveland. Highlight: The Terminal Tower. The days with cloud cover—well, at least we still got to sit on the crumbling, venerable stone bench nearby. It made us feel that we were touching history to know that John D. Rockefeller had owned this land and new Americans like us could traverse it on foot. I was born in Cleveland shortly before my sisters and parents become naturalized citizens.

In a non-driving family--in any struggling family--muscle power in the legs is a key to survival. And so is having a lofty view--something that frames the world from a perspective radically different from what is in front of one’s nose. It adds a sense of possibility.

Some days, we’d shop in East Cleveland, another sizable walk. The best part was pacing ourselves to go downhill slowly on Superior Road, toward Euclid Avenue.

“Look, you can see the lake,” my mom would say, never loosening her grip on my tiny hand (traffic whizzed, even in those days), pointing into the distance with her free hand.
Not quite sure where sky and water met, seeing shades of blue and white melded together far, far away, I’d simplify matters by pointing to the sky and saying “Lake Erie.”

I am old enough to remember when the Terminal Tower, was—in fact—the tallest structure in the city. In grade school we ascended its 52 stories on a field trip. I remember less the actual view than the sense of being tightly sandwiched among classmates and wondering if the dizziness was due to the “thin air” I heard was a drawback of living in Colorado. Though logic told me that the Union terminal was nearby, I would reflect on the pun: Terminal. Did that mean nothing could go further? Was it not to be surpassed? It’s one thing to be miles away from a tower, looking down at it from a hill in a park; it’s quite another to be at the top, looking down.

Fast forwarding my life, I spent several years working on the 18th floor of Rhodes Tower at Cleveland State University and, later, the 12th floor of Fenn Tower, which boasts a history dating back to the 1930s. Graceful seagulls that circled campus epitomized the vitality of a great lake, nearer to me than I would have thought possible on my childhood jaunts.

Driving to Cuyahoga Community College Metropolitan Campus from the east side recently, I took the route down Cedar Hill. I have walked it many times. “This is a foothill of the Appalachian Mountains,” I told my son as we cruised down the curving, steep hill—an amazing fact I’ve shared more than once. Usually the response is: “Yeah, I know.”

But this time, he responded: “And we’re not all that far from Tornado Alley and the Great Plains.”
What heights and hills are to me, extreme weather and stretching expanses might be to my son. Imagination must truly be the shortest distance between two points.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Meditation: Tisha B'Av

Tisha B’Av is a commemoration I did not know about growing up. Although I attended a Conservative synagogue--where generally, these days, there is some awareness--it is the Orthodox that observe the most comprehensive remembrance, with three weeks of reflection and mourning leading up to the 9th of Av. This year (2008), the 9th falls on the Sabbath, so it is being observed on the 10th.

Tisha B'Av remembers the destruction of the first and second Temples; both happened on the ninth of Av (the first by Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.; the second by Romans in 70 C.E.). The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was also on the 9th of Av. My paternal grandmother's lineage dates back to that. Reading the Book of Job and from the Book of Lamentations is traditional.

Surfing the internet while sleepless early this morning (which I admit is not the best spiritual practice, but it does help at times) I reflected how the distant but enduring memory of the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem and the expulsion from Spain relate to my lineage within Judaism, my brief life here. My thoughts converged on the destruction of the Lodz ghetto synagogues barely seventy years ago, tragedies that members of my father's family, and my father himself, would have known about because they were interred there, trapped in a setting that is most accurately described as a labor camp. To see one's house of worship go up in flames. An omen. A travesty. To be banned from practicing one's faith. To be denied life, continuity...

Every day, I look at pictures of my two grandmothers, Hedwig and Sura Rosja, on the bookshelf in my living room. I regularly ask myself how best to honor their memories and to work in the world for a tolerance, mutual understanding, and radical kindness…forces muted by the evil, hatred, suspicion, and cruelty that separated these two women during the Nazi regime. I do not always, or often, have an answer. The eyes of both grandmothers are very, very sad. They remind me that in a political or ideological situation in which there are insiders and outsiders, no one is really safe. It is delusory that what happens to one people does not touch all.

My grandmothers were typical women and remarkable women, from the stories I have heard. I can only imagine what they would say about the world that has emerged since their deaths. Do they wonder, as I do, why neither of two valid paths toward peace--reason or compassion--seems to be able to prevail?

My grandmother Hedwig’s photo was taken long after the war, long after she lost her first daughter to a sudden death and my mother, her middle child, to a quest across the ocean to a new world and a new faith. My mother embraced Judaism. My grandmother's Lutheran faith was dear to her, but she agreed to raise her daughters Catholic. The values, prayers, and genuine piety of her mother, my maternal great-grandmother, have been preserved in a letter I cherish. I think for several generations, faith and love have been felt deeply and able to bridge seemingly unresolvable differences in my lineage

My grandmother Sura’s eyes are sad as she stands near her eldest daughter as she is married at the age of sixteen; a bit of my aunt Regina’s veil is showing. Regina's marriage crumbled prior to the Shoah, and her attempt to save her four children by hiding them saved just one...my cousin Fanny, who is now deceased...but there is a family story that, perhaps, one of the others, a young man, ultimately escaped to Russia. My grandmother died at Stutthof Concentration Camp in December 1944. I received notification from the historian Danuta Drywa this summer--a facsimile of an actual piece of paper, a death record, processed at the time. I am grateful to Dr. Drywa for this help. My grandmother died in abysmal conditions at Stutthof, a lesser known but brutal camp.

The violence in Georgia and Russia this week again reopens for me the wound of violence against the human family. I have no knowledge of the historical background to the Georgian/Russian conflict. But I see in the eyes of the wounded and the brief news reports another outbreak of the disease that threatens to destroy us all in the long-term if we cannot learn other ways to solve disputes of land, belief, property, ideology. A sample of one, I can speak to what happens in the next generation when the previous one is scarred by violence. The dislocation remains, the mourning continues: although one may seem to "put it behind."

The murderous attack during a children's play at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church two weeks ago saddened and shocked me. I have found solace among the tolerant Unitarians at several times in my life. My dear friend Elizabeth, now gone from this world, was a Unitarian who urged me to teach her Hebrew while growing up on our walks to and from school. The national news coverage of the in-sanctuary violence in Tennessee seemed unusually light to me. I was amazed at the courage of the parishioners who tackled the gunman. Yet I know that where there has been this type of vicious assault on freedom and on the sacred, there will be a slow process of healing and--for some--traumatic repercussions that may last a long time.

For fall, I have been asked to coordinate a reading group on the themes of Native America. I am very ignorant of those people on whose original lands I live, walk, work, and play and whose place names surround me almost everywhere I go. I have been reading as much as I can. Sadness and continuity. Historical wounds and future growth. Families lost; a remnant remains.

On this Tisha B'Av I grieve for the cyclical, recurrent outbreaks of violence against groups and individuals--outbreaks organized or impromptu, cooly rational or emotional. There must be another way for humanity to express itself.

To readers who have skimmed this and feel overwhelmed: Do what you can for human rights for the group(s) you hold near and dear to your heart.

If you have been the victim of violence, recognize that you are not alone and that what affects one, affects all. Please do not lose hope.