So Many

vietnam-memorial-soldier

                               (Viet Nam Memorial/soldier)

So many names.

I could talk about being a youth and young adult during the sixties and seventies and the myriad events I witnessed, the upheavals that altered this society’s institutions of many kinds. Or the ways family was redefined and individuals found community in new ways. There were pioneering and also risky ideological movements; women’s rights made progress and many men came to know themselves differently, as well. The assassination of JFK alone would have ben enough to rock our young worlds. It was a time of change that made an impact we would feel decades later.

I could tell you my little story. But this attempt at saying something that matters is about theirs, almost all of which I barely know. This essay is not “for” or “against” anything, but simply in remembrance of those who have gone before us due to being soldiers. They have had expectations and thoughts regarding events about which I have understood less than I should.

But I can at least say that back then there was Viet Nam first and last in our lives. It permeated the news, our consciousness, our fears, questioning. Television left less and less to the imagination and the images followed us into sleep. Front pages held news daily that stopped us in our ordinary lives. We had our own ways with the war: enlisted or were drafted, debated, protested, marched, prayed for peace, tried to ignore it, worried, waited it out a very, very long while.

So when I see this picture my breath leaves me and it sears on the way out, aches upon its return. I stood at that memorial, that wall, many years later, touched the names chiseled in the smooth, obdurate surface. I watched the soldiers and families, felt my face burn and eyes fill, heart contract. But I have never been a soldier. Standing there was so private, yet so public as all who were present shared grief and memories together at the wall.

So many.

But not all who left passed on.

My brother came back from the Viet Nam War a changed spirit, a different kind of man altogether, and for me a brother I feared lost. I was confused. I could not touch him so far away was he from us. His easy laughter had long left and the rooms were emptier for it. I was not a child but it sorrowed me in a way that nothing and no one could explain away. I did not find the brother from before but he did return to us in body, and slowly, he redesigned his life. He lived each day as he best determined it. He unfroze over time but the thoughts were kept to himself; pain, no doubt bitter, never named. Yet somewhere his changed destiny allowed him to unearth indelible beauty and love, which he offered again. Or it found him, like an angel settling in. One way he may have been renewed was through photography, a way of seeing and translating life even when he was a soldier. I have seen his pictures of the women and children, men in doorways, streets full of the still-living, the country and city landscapes so haunting to me. Perhaps they helped him salvage the good that survived. I don’t know. He stepped forward and continued on.

I’ve rediscovered him again since becoming an adult. I’ve become less innocent but more attentive, too. I study his photographs past and current and think they hold a kind of vivid austerity, a lean and elegant power that comes from burning. A quietude. Something sacred and also forlorn co-mingles in light and shadows. He has travelled around the world many times and brings back stories for my eye and spirit. I can wander with him. For all that, I am more than thankful. And he shares kindnesses in more ways than can be noted here.

Yet as he himself would likely note: too many gone. I once walked through the Arlington National Cemetery. The endless white, simple crosses with stringent light streaming through trees…that unavoidable silence, yet a silence potent and heavy. It hollowed out a place in me from which a tidal wave of weeping issued as I walked on and on.

I feel it again today. There is so much more to the story we see in the photo above. Tales that survivors hold secret. Things some release in increments that nonetheless feel vast. And it still haunts and covers us with a cloak of pain. Prayers like songs that never end: they fall like drops of blood to earth yet also take flight. To the Universe. To God, who waits for us to remember our compassion, seeks to heal without our ever knowing all the answers. Or the right questions, I sometimes think.

So many separate lives, sacred to the whole of this, our humanity. That is what I think of when I see my artist daughter’s mammoth handmade quilt, the fabrics into which she sewed and counted porcelain “bones” to represent each soldier who died in Iraq. “In memoriam” was the engine of her industry and moved her heart. Her lap was heavy with yards of fabric sheltering clay pieces, then folded on the floor. She sat in a rocking chair exposing, stitching, recreating, remembering the losses. And the spirit of her work was unleashed. She has shown it in art galleries where few of us may fathom lives lost, to forces we poorly decipher. But the essence of those gone is evident.

How many wars this world has counted and still counts. Soldiers who have taken their places. Our country alone: those going, too often not returning. So many lives. I bow my head. Tears do not, cannot speak enough- cannot touch enough- cannot change this world enough. But that doesn’t keep me from hoping and praying, still. It doesn’t put out the light. But we cannot forget who and what has been, and who still carries on.

large_fit_Falk_recalledquilt_0073_1_1000                                “Recall(ed) Quilt” by  Naomi J. Falk

*Please view more on this and other works at: http://naomijfalk.com/media/2095

*Note: Vietnam Memorial photo is courtesy of Patricia Ann McNair’s blog.

Finding Favor

apf4-03422r

(Photo credit: The University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf4-03422-xml, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

It was the result of a challenge that I ended up in an unattractive dress seated in a claustrophobic tent for four hours. It was for the good of the school, Bentley College. They held a fair every first week of school, a way to get our last little kicks as well as fund more Student Union activities. Soon classes would doom us to hard work and chronic weariness. The newbies came as well, just sprung from their bucolic hometowns, ready to jump into the world of hand-picked Bentley students. Lucky them, luckier us since we knew the ropes. So it was a welcoming party by default.

Nate and Erica got me to volunteer after she told him about my palm reading sessions last spring. The part she left out was that I conducted them reluctantly. Instead, she wove a tale of how effortlessly I read the landscapes of students’ palms. She insisted I mentioned things they noted were correct. The seekers came to my room surreptitiously and demanded I reveal future outcomes–whether they would fail or pass a mid-term or if some boy was the bona fide one and only. I was an excellent guesser, a tad intuitive at my best. It was nothing to get excited about.

It was bothersome at the least, and embarrassing at worst. I had heretofore been known as a budding intellectual. I wanted to become a research psychologist. Now the word was that I was a fortune-teller. I should have squelched the talk, as mother would have disowned me. My father–well, he would find it unthinkable and therefore untrue.

Nate didn’t know about my palmistry avocation because guys had no interest in that sort of thing. They lived in their own worlds. For Nick, that meant his main pleasure, after making Dean’s List, was gambling. Poker to be exact, nothing better than that. He was good, that we all knew as word travels fast when a boy on the verge of manhood has the money to drive a car that takes your breath away. It was the most attractive thing about him, although I suspect it was his father’s loaner. Nate didn’t talk to me much the first two years so when he challenged me to dress up and tell fortunes at the Fall Revels I promptly declined. Then Erica and he concocted this scheme of betting on whether I would or not. The money: fifty dollars donated to the Union, fifty to the winner. It worked. I relented to get them out of my hair. Erica is a moderate friend of a dear friend so I could manage to do this once. Nate, simply an irritant. He later bet me I wouldn’t make one hundred the whole night, at two dollars a palm reading.

The night was cooling off, fortunately for all. I shifted in my chair, waiting for people to line up. Moths flew around the candle light first then several had been shepherded my way and I said the right things, remained ambiguous enough to thrill them, and saw good tidings in the distance. More dropped in to say hi and get “the inside info.” It was going well, after all.

I recalled enough from reading  Madame Palantine’s Handbook of Palms and Fortunes to indicate the tracings on the hand and their professed significance. It had been left on the train my family took to Yellowstone the summer before twelfth grade. It fascinated me. I have a good memory, you could say unusually so, and after I read it twice I had the details.

Anyway, it was easy. People want to believe things. They want to hear their hopes given a vote of probability. They have secrets they won’t tell to most people, but if put them in a dimly lit tent with a person seated with confidence, create a hint of mystery, and they give themselves away somehow. It’s my foreignness, I think. I have an accent courtesy of having lived in Croatia the first half of my life. If I let it slip it adds interest and it attached itself to my predictions.

I was entertained; so were the customers. But by eleven o’clock I was tired, I wanted an iced cold drink with my friends. When a straggler sat down, I said nothing. I may have sighed but so did she. I was startled. She had hooded hazel eyes that must have informed the whole world of heartbreak. They were brimming with quiet, painful things. I took her hands in mine. They rested like baby birds sleeping, twitchiness enclosed in elegance. I felt her sadness pierce my center. Boldness swept over me.

“Your aunt, she has left,” I said.

She leaned closer.

“I’m so sorry she died. What do you want of me?”

This girl filled the tent with an invisible net of aching. I saw her hands, how narrow of palm, how tapered the fingertips, the many fine, long lines that mapped her skin. She was fragile yet there was a survival instinct that gave strength. I could feel her taking my measure. September’s piquant air was inhaled as though it cleared her mind.

She gave me a crooked smile. One eye let go a tear.

“Aunt Sari back.”

“Of course you do. But do you want the house she left? On the riverbank?”

She swiped at her wet cheeks. “How can I know? I haven’t gotten to that point! I just came to college to get away from the family!” Her voice was now a considerable force. “Who are you, anyway?”

“I don’t know, well, I was just sitting here and you came in and then I realized your aunt–”

She drew back and stood to leave. Not so much angry as just done. I was, as well. We entered the velvety night and gazed at the crowd. People were restive, milling about, chattering away, the night having bestowed good cheer on all. I felt stunned. In fact I wondered if she would run off and complain and if I should make amends when she turned to me and gave me a little shake of the shoulders.

“Well, then, I’m Favor Wexler. I haven’t a clue about what you just did but it marks the start of an interesting year.”

“I’m Celia,” I laughed–why not? “I’m not really into this, I just… well, I prefer to be known as a serious student of human nature.”

“Really? Good job,” she said and managed to almost smile.

We threaded our way through the clumped groups of students. As I walked up to Erica and Nate I held my hand out to him.

“Pay up!”

He raised an eyebrow at me, but he beamed as his glance slid over to Favor. He got out his wallet. I made a prediction right then and there.