Saturday, May 17, 2014

reflections on a genocide studies class

I came to this class the first time in the spring of 2012, just a few months after my husband died.  At that time I was a Psychology major/Anthropology Minor/ and LGBT Studies Certificate student.  I originally signed up for the class because I knew that my interpretation of genocide, and especially the Holocaust, had been skewed by the atrocious memories of my mother and mother-in-law, both of whom were German, both driven from their homes by an advancing Russian army.  I wanted a scholarly perspective that went beyond rhetoric.  Over the course of the first time through the class I was horrified to discover how few episodes of genocide I had actually been aware of and the causes and outcomes of each haunted my thoughts and put me on a search for a meaning behind such madness.  Over the ensuing two years my life has gone through many personal changes – much of it upheaval in the most intrinsic sense.  As I watched my life implode little by little I continued to think back on the catastrophic effects genocide produced in individuals for whom, it can honestly be said, the world as they knew it was obliterated forever.
I returned to the class this semester with the same academic aspirations, but with a new perspective on life.  I saw even the most all-consuming tragedy as an amoral event given moral valance by the actions (and inactions) of each individual involved – however indirectly.  I began to dig deeper into the information presented throughout the class, always searching to ascertain where individual agency manifested itself, and what resulted from it.  I especially centered on issues of complicity – both for those that become perpetrators and for those that stand by and do nothing.  Throughout the readings, and in conjunction with the research I did in preparation for the two APBR projects, I delved deeply into both the effects of collective ideology and the psychology behind individual agency.  At times I brought controversial opinions to the discussion because I want a forum where such things could be openly debated – and I was not disappointed.
Prior to coming to Northern I had graduated from an intensive two-year Lay Ministry certification program through the Catholic Diocese of Rockford.  It was there that I found my true passion in the study of belief.  Not just religious belief, but belief as a human construct and intrinsic dimension of our make-up.  This class has not only fueled that passion but given it a present-day immediate relevance as well, as every episode of genocide was expounded via the perspective of what did the parties involved believe as these events unraveled.  As a result I plan to take the knowledge gleaned from this class and funnel it back into my own research in order to give voice to the importance of individual responsibility and the power of agency.  I am confident that once the history vaults are thoroughly scrubbed of shaded interpretations, a method can be found that will enable social scientists to begin the daunting task of reminding the world what it truly means to be a socially-situated human creature and world citizen.  I want to be part of that process – through writing, research, speaking, and engagement.
Many years ago I read Karl Menninger’s “Whatever Became of Sin?” in which he examines the consequences of losing touch with individual issues of accountability and recompense.  In this class I have had been privileged to bookend that lesson with what happens when this occurs among large groups of people.
This has left me convinced that the asking of forgiveness must not be accompanied by amnesia.  It is vital that we continue to remember and learn from each genocidal event so that these incidents can one day be finally relegated to the pages of history.  But not a history cloaked in either polemic or whitewash.  But a history that is ours to bear and bear up.  If I would erase the tragedies of my own individual life, what would become of the person I am today?  If we attempt a revisionist view towards the darker aspects of our collective history, what part of our humanity will be sacrificed in the process?  This class has taught me in graphic and unforgettable terms what happens when good people forget, and the voices of evil are the only ones remaining to be heard. 
Time and again areas of the world have descended into serial episodes of intractable horror only to emerge with the belief that forgetting is the best path to healing.   Generations grow up not knowing their collective cultural history or the responsibility bequeathed to them because of it.  There was a time when I truly wished my mother could forget, and I harbored a deeply-seated but unspoken rage at the unspeakable events she survived.  Today I know that had I succeeded in forgetting I would have been no better in preventing the continued existence of such evil as if I had personally succumbed to it.  We must stand together as one voice for justice – no matter the location, the people; the time.  We must accept the harsh reality that for every possible crime within the constellation of genocide it could be us and move toward bringing that reality and the implications of its truth to the wider audience of the world.
The last time the Honors group met you said that in your work in Cyprus you had “managed to make both sides angry, so you must be doing something right.”  I smiled then, but that statement profoundly summed up what must be done by everyone with breath so that bringing to light the realities of these tragedies can be a path to reconciliation, forgiveness and education.  I would like to believe that genocide is something we, as a species, can someday prevent forever.  But rather than focus on that, this course has taught me that the more important concentration must be on “what can I do today to make sure it isn’t happening on my watch?” 
I wish there was a part-two to this class because I feel there is so much left to learn, but another benefit of this experience is that I am now aware of a myriad of resources where I can continue to study on my own and where one day I hope to have some small measure of impact.  Beyond the various disciplines that define my intellectual passions, I am a writer by heart, and it is through that vehicle that I hope to leave my mark in the ongoing struggle for Human Rights and Justice.  This class has armed me with a wealth of information and a more astute understanding of some of the most horrifying and tragic world events and how the consequences of these continue to influence the world today, and a deeper belief in the importance of the individual in all aspects of this reality. For that I am profoundly grateful. 


Thursday, November 28, 2013

for all this I give thanks...

THANKSGIVING DAY… Thursday, November 28th… I woke up early this morning, having gotten a good night’s sleep.  I immediately began to think about the meaning behind this day – as I do every year, in part, I think, because I am a writer and archivist of the family.  Two-thousand-thirteen was a tumultuous year – Angie has been sick and in-and-out of the hospital since early January; Ashley, Stephan and Daisy moved back into my house in early summer and are now waiting to hear if they have a house of their own; Christopher is in the first serious romantic relationship I have known with Chelsey; Erich is approaching his first Christmas as MPU Lead at Sears; Chris H is once again working, and he and Nick are still with me; and I returned to school at NIU in the Fall despite reservations about Angie’s health, and have enjoyed every moment on campus, relishing the independence that my actions presage.  
Events in the lives of our extended family also took center stage at various times during the year – Kathy was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, and underwent surgery; There were many births among the rented kids and their growing families – Jeff and Olivia Mueller welcomed a new little boy, as did Jennie Irving.  Ryan and Sara Rodgers welcomed a little girl, as did Lila and her husband.  Sean Rodgers and his wife, Ashley, welcomed a second little boy into their family as well.  Paul Fina received his Doctor of Pharmacy degree.  Rose Carr celebrated 10 years cancer-free and Sara Rodgers celebrated her 5 year cancer-free re-birthday.  For the last couple of months there have been 8 adults, 2 dogs (for a while it was three), 8 cats and a turtle named Frankie sharing 1311 N. Church Street and although there have been some rough patches, we haven’t killed each other yet
My Papa has been gone 41 years and Erhard’s mother, Lina, has been gone 17 years, both October 18th; Erhard’s father, Joseph, 13 years June 15th; Mama, 6 years May 12th.  Erhard, was gone, 2 years this October 13th; Steve, a year September 22nd, and Mike Ruszczak a year September 26th. Praise the Lord; we lost no one this year, although Angie did give us a series of frights with her health.  Time has dulled some of the edges of sorrow, but never for more than a few heartbeats at a time.  Yet we survived.  We laughed.  We celebrated.  We moved forward.      
I have been so blessed these last twelve months, rescued from disaster and my own devices more times than I can count.  My faith in God and his angels has been made stronger; my love for those I call my children, and rented children deepened beyond even what I could have understood just a year ago.  My extended family, my friends… whatever is good and holy and sacred in my life I have once again been shown is best expressed by your love, your faith, your assistance.  I am fortunate that my daughter-in-law, Ashley, whom I adore, and I have become even better friends since she has lived under my roof – to her immense credit in putting up with all of us.
To say I am thankful seems trite; the actual emotion runs so much deeper.  I have learned to not take anything for granted because over the course of this year there have been many times when even putting together a complete meal was a greater challenge than could be met on some days.  We came very close to having utilities turned off and had health concerns unaddressed, sometimes for weeks.  Automobiles didn't always cooperate with our budgeting plans and long-deferred, but now pressing household maintenance threatened to completely disrupt our lives.  Yet we came together and persevered, and triumphed in both large and small ways over the challenges presented to us.  Without my family, extended family, and friends, tough times would have been catastrophic. 
There is little editorial to add, words fail to convey everything I feel, yet as a wordsmith, they are the tools I have been given to communicate my love, my appreciation, my awe.  There has always been some debate as to the exact details of that first Thanksgiving, who brought what, who was present… but at the center of that story is a cautionary tale of pride broken into humility and elevated to gratefulness – our own lives, my life mirrors that process, sometimes daily.  As we gather with family and friends this day… May serendipity surprise you, may the Lord bless you… may the joy be overflowing…

Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 – The Year the World Didn’t End

It’s ten-after-three in the afternoon, December 29th, 2012 and I am contemplating the conclusion of another year.  So much has happened in just the last few months that it almost seems like the first part of the year didn't happen.  All this year there had been talk of the great Mayan Apocalypse of 12.21.12 – a day that actually slipped by almost unnoticed in the end.  But so much has changed that maybe in a way my world really did end and I am just now coming to terms with just how different life is.  I entered twenty-twelve never thinking I would be here right now.  Plans were in place for me to graduate with my Bachelor’s degree last May, our finances while decidedly more touch-and-go then when Erhard was alive seemed to be holding together, and my brother Steve and I embarked on a whirlwind of outings that brought us closer together and me some real measure of comfort as I learned to deal with life as a widow. 
And then September happened and everything just fell apart.  Steve became seriously ill on my birthday (September 9th) and entered the intensive care unit the next morning.  Within the span of a week-and-a-half I was reinstated as his power-of-attorney-for-health-care and I had to make the fatal and horrific decision to stop life support and let him go… while still in shock I reached out to my sister-in-law just at the moment she was calling me to let me know that her brother (and my brother-in-law) Mike had died suddenly four days after Steve.  That had to be the most surreal conversation I have ever had in my life – the two of us trying to come to terms with the fact that BOTH our brothers were suddenly gone.
School became a blur, even as I had made the decision to graduate in December (something that didn’t happen) and scraping together the money for my brother’s final expenses and some large expenses coming due at the same time wiped out every extra cent I had without the possibility of any more self-generated income.  I suddenly became a dependent again – something I can’t begin to describe.  Ever since then I have lived in the margins of my mind – equal parts focused and determined and desperate and grief-stricken.  October and November blended into each other, the holidays came and while there were moments of great contentment and joy a part of me felt out-of-sync and emotionally absent.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew there were solutions to be divined and made tangible but they were always elusively just out-of-reach.  I am left feeling helpless and free-floating in some abysmal mire waiting for the mental fog to clear even as I reach for just about any substance to keep my mind altered. 
Now as the clock ticks off the last hours of the year I am again faced with new situations that I would truthfully just rather not deal with but for which there is no other choice but for me to act in a responsible manner.  Early next month my sister, Angela will undergo eye surgery to restore her vision.  The concept of Angie as blind and frail at 49 years old never pinged my radar but as of this Thanksgiving reality came home when she came for dinner and it was obvious that her health had taken a serious downward turn.  The prospect of one more caregiving role is almost too much for me to contemplate but here I am. 
If I should dare look away from this situation and focus on my own life I am left contemplating the fact that my car is now seriously on the fritz – needing both a new thermostat and tires.  I am so far behind in my schoolwork I have decided to not enroll in any more classes until I can complete the legion of incompletes currently on my transcript, even though that means I will have no health insurance and only six months before the first of my student loans need to be factored into my expenses. For the first time since Erhard’s death not a single bill has been paid this month and I am not sure that there is enough anywhere to cover the cost, despite the fact that both kids and renteds have stepped up to fill the gap.  I can’t even bring myself to gather up the bills although I know instinctively that I will have to have this done by Monday.
Yet as I looked around this morning after waking up hours later than usual because I was unable to sleep until past seven-this-morning I felt a security and contentment as I gazed around my cluttered, mismatched home and realized that I loved this place and my life and I had to ultimately prove that no, the world really didn’t end. 
I know that I face months of therapy and assistance before my equilibrium returns completely but for right now, this moment, I am okay.  I am safe within the cocoon of a loving, large, raucous family and extended family and that none of us are willing to watch the others sink.  Sitting at my feet is a mixed-breed puppy too large to be recognized as the baby he still is, offering me his warmth and comfort and unconditional love.  The house is dark yet the lights on the Christmas tree twinkle brightly just a room away reminding me of the riotous mix of colors and styles that make up the life and the living space I occupy.  I have just gotten up and lit the candles in the foyer that keep watch over the memorial to my mother, brother, and husband.  A little less darkness in a space that is far more used to light than gloom. 
While far from gourmet there is food in the cabinets for human and critter alike (both dog and six-cats worth). Beyond my melancholy I know there is still joy and love enough for me and everyone I care about… even if reaching it is more laborious than I would like.  I am content with my humanity, my spirituality, even my weight – which curiously hasn't changed much in the three months I have stepped away from daily measuring and recording – a small tidbit of trivia that actually makes me quite proud.  I am not where I want to be but where I am is alright for now. 
I have not given up on the idea and practice of interdependency even as I wrestle my ego into submission whenever I have to ask one of the guys for something – even something small.  I have a role to play in this world and something to contribute even if right now I don’t know exactly what that is… and somehow, in some strange weird bohemian kind-of-way that knowledge comforts me.  Life is broken but repairable.  Just like the nooks and crannies and garage spaces I have cleaned out of late I can clean out the clutter of my loneliness and despair and make room again for contentment.   Routine activities bring me solace.  The simple acts of life maintenance remind me that I am really still alive – that once again, the world really didn't end.
I am not sure exactly what 2013 holds for any of us – there is always the hope that it will somehow be better than what came before, but no guarantees come with living this real life.  If I could wave a magic wand over my world I would enjoin the spirits of the universe to bring us safely back here twelve months from now better than we ever were in the past – that all of us will find 2013 a cherished year.  But I have no magic, only a ditch-digger’s shovel resourceful enough to find serendipity alive and well after the sweat and tears dry.  

Thursday, December 27, 2012


It’s snowy and frosty outside… the quintessential White Christmas.   Right now the house is quiet, neither man nor dog yet roused from their slumber.  I am reflective maybe even melancholy as I gather my thoughts to write this.  Last year this house was still reeling from the death of our beloved father and husband, Erhard.  This was the day, one year ago, I found out my brother was in the hospital – the beginning of the ordeal that would eventually take him from us.  This year they are both gone, joined un-expectantly by my brother-in-law Mike.  The loss threatens to wash away any joy.  Last year at this time there was at least the security of finance – and Christmas was a time when I could be generous, this year we struggle to make even basic obligations and the gifts under the tree are few and meager.  So much has fallen into ruin.  But in the midst of this I can hear the refrain of a beloved hymn:  “Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light…” and I am reminded of all that we still have…
This was the year I had to let go and allow others to take care of me – something I have never done (and still find excruciatingly difficult).  The gnawing dependency slays my ego but warms my heart.  As a family – birthed, extended, and rented – we grew closer to each other.  And in the end it became all right.  Less stuff, but more care.  Commitment trumped currency.  Sense overrode sentiment as I made decisions that I thought impossible just a year ago.  But in the end it came down to love – and I found within myself a love for all my friends and family that surpassed what I could bequeath them, because now I had nothing tangible to give.  It showed itself in a myriad of random acts of kindness.   And I am reminded that Christ, unlike Santa, did not enter the world bearing an arm load of material gifts.  He came and gave himself. 
To each and every one of you I give myself this day.  My love, my gratitude, my energy, and when possible, my optimism… when I am in grief I ask you gather round and remind me of your love – and how that never fails.  I am not the only person that has lost loved ones during 2012 and I am aware that for others of you this day may well be tinged in grief as well.  Let us reach out to one another… each of us pointing to that everlasting light.  I wish all of you… sincerely… a joyous day of celebration in remembrance that our hope has re-entered the world – as a child – pure, unabashedly in love with us all, ready to steady us as we count down these last days of 2012.