Tribute to a quiet hero

A few weeks ago, on January 11, a woman in the Netherlands died as quietly as she had lived.

If you have ever read Anne Frank’s Diary, perhaps the name Miep Gies will ring a bell. She was one of the group of trusted employees who helped Otto Frank, his family and some friends hide in the attic of their office building during the Nazi occupation of Holland. For two years, Miep acted as their lifeline to the outside world, bringing food, clothing, news, and other important necessities of life, such as friendship, laughter, and hope.

When the hiding place was discovered and its occupants arrested in August 1944, Miep rescued the pages of Anne’s diary from the floor of the attic where they had been scattered, and bundled them away into a drawer, not knowing if they would ever again see the light of day.

A year later, after receiving the news that Anne and her sister Margot had died at Bergen Belsen, Miep placed the rescued pages into Otto Frank’s hands.

The rest, as they say, is history.

A lesser known work is Anne Frank Remembered, Miep’s own account of the “Secret Annex,” published decades later, in 1987. I remember reading it with admiration and respect. What Miep, her husband Jan, and the others did to help the Franks took unimaginable courage on a daily basis, and yet to her it was simply what had to be done.

“My story,” she wrote in the prologue, “is a story of very ordinary people during extraordinarily terrible times. Times the like of which I hope with all my heart will never, never come again. It is for all of us ordinary people all over the world to see to it that they do not.”

In the midst of all the glory-grabbing, inanity and pettiness that seem to prevail these days, Miep’s story is a shining example of what it means to be a quiet hero. As the song goes, “…we can all be quiet heroes, living quiet days / Walking through the world, changing it in quiet ways.”

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The answer to so many questions

The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius (Swifter, Higher, Stronger).” Three words that capture perfectly the tenacity and transcendence of the human spirit. It seems that we all have an innate sense that we were born to soar, to go further and higher than we can see and reach.

No wonder, then, the frustration of our everyday encounters with our own limitations. Often, our cherished visions don’t match reality. We struggle to achieve perfection and come up short. We give something our best shot, and still it’s not enough. We try to find reasons why, and quickly realize that there are many things that we just can’t know, explain, or fix.

In moments like these, it may help to remember something that a wise man once said: we understand more deeply through love than through knowledge. So many mysteries, so many incomprehensible, heartbreaking things, suddenly become simple and easy when we try to grasp them with our hearts instead of with our minds.

Our earth-bound bodies may not be able to touch the stars. Our limited minds may not be able to contain all there is to know. But we do have the ability to do one thing with no limits: we all have an infinite capacity to love.

The fourth B

You’ve likely heard of the classic trio of desirable qualities in a prospective partner: beauty, brains, and bankbook. To this I would add a fourth “B”: backbone. Because a person could be drop-dead gorgeous, or smart as a whip, or rich as Croesus, or even all three at once. But if you want dependability, initiative, staying power, you’ll need to find someone, or be someone, who has that fourth B.

Everything else is just gravy.

So what exactly is backbone? How about starting with what it’s not? Backbone is not the same as stubbornness, or pride. It’s not about being right all the time, excelling in everything you do, or being some kind of superhero.

Literally speaking, the backbone is your spine…something that helps you stand erect. So having backbone means, primarily, getting to your feet when you need to. Like when the alarm clock rings (instead of hitting snooze and rolling over for another five, ten, twenty minutes of sleep). Or when someone needs a helping hand. Or up from the table when you’ve had enough to eat. Or out the door when you find yourself in a bad situation. Or whenever you stumble, fall, or fail.

It means having fortitude and integrity: showing up when you say you will, doing what you say you’ll do. It means honouring your promises and following through on your commitments.

It means having wisdom and courage: making decisions based on the understanding that every action has consequences, and accepting those consequences once you have acted. It means not just knowing the right thing, but also doing the right thing, even when you run the risk of being laughed at, criticized, ostracized, or fired. It means defending people who can’t defend themselves.

Backbone is what makes any kind of relationship work, whether it’s a business partnership, a friendship, a marriage, or a family. Without it, we’re all just a bunch of marshmallows.

We can’t all transform ourselves into supermodels, geniuses, or millionaires. But it’s never too late for any of us to grow a backbone.

Thoughts on The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I’ve just finished reading Thornton Wilder‘s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In a thoughtful essay on the Haiti earthquake, Michael Cook refers to the book’s disaster, which took the lives of five people, and concludes that suffering is not meaningless if we consider that every life – even if suddenly and tragically ended – can be considered “a perfect whole.”

Intrigued and moved by these musings, and never having read The Bridge of San Luis Rey before, I went to the public library in search of it. It took me about three days to finish. Once I got to the end, I went back to the beginning and read it again. It is one of those many-layered books that will surprise you with new meaning each time you read it.

Wilder’s writing style reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, except that it is not quite as confusing or ambiguous. (Nor does Wilder ramble on for hundreds of tedious pages. When I found The Bridge, I was surprised by its slimness, less than 150 pages in all.) The story reads like a fable, replete with hyperbole and irony, and crowded with whimsical and colourful characters: an eccentric old woman penning endless letters to her daughter; not one but two scornful and beautiful women; not one but two handsome young men; a poor and lonely little girl; a poor and lonely little boy; a wise and mysterious old man; an Abbess who goes about tirelessly doing good; a sea captain who roams the world; and the saintly and simple monk who serves as their biographer. However, in their passions and affections they are all too human. Each one hungers for a love that for some reason or another is beyond reach.

Five of these characters are plunged to their deaths with the breaking of the bridge. Most of the book deals with the paths each of these characters took that led him or her to the bridge at that precise moment in time when it collapsed. But to me, the most beautiful part of the book comes at the end, where we see how those left behind try and come to terms with love and chances lost forever, and discover to their astonishment that in spite of everything, they still get a second shot at redeeming grace.

“In love,” the Abbess tells the remorseful Condesa, “our very mistakes don’t seem to be able to last long.” This is the very heart of the book. At face value, each life researched by Brother Juniper was a long string of mistakes: greed, pride, selfishness, the folly of yearning for the impossible. But in the end, it can truly be said that every person is more than just the sum of his mistakes; we are all made “perfect wholes” by love.

“The Magic of Images”

Author Camille Paglia vividly describes, and makes the case for, three areas of disconnect in the modern visual environment, and the generation growing up in it: between contemporary culture and history; between image and language; and between the multiplicity of images and the ability to really see them.

“Young people today,” she says, “are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them.”

The solution she proposes is the historical and cultural grounding of the basic education of today’s students, whom she portrays in bold strokes as “unmoored from the mother ship of culture” and “riding the tail of a comet in a media starscape of explosive but evanescent images.” Truly an artist with words, Paglia advocates the use of “exemplary images” from the canon of Western art to help students develop their visual, analytical, and verbal skills, which she says have been degraded by their usage of modern media, in particular the television and computer.

It is interesting to note that half a century ago, the German philosopher Josef Pieper already observed that “man’s ability to see is in decline.” In “Learning to See Again,” an essay he wrote in 1952, he notes, “The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see…(the) visual noise of daily inanities makes clear perception impossible.”

Paglia’s concluding paragraph, however, gives me pause – particularly her last sentence: “The only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of words.” I agree with her on the importance of having solid cultural and educational formation so that we are able to analyze data, think critically, form our own ideas, and articulate them effectively. I find it ironic, though, that she devotes a good part of the article on the merits – indeed, the necessity – of educating students on Western art, then wraps up by saying that that images need an “antidote.” Why would they need an antidote? Isn’t it true that even in – especially in – today’s fragmented world, there are still some things that just cannot be expressed in words?

To turn again to another of Pieper’s essays (“Thoughts on Music,” 1952) we can name certain constants of the human condition: joy, hope, yearning, grief, despair… “To articulate such intimate realities,” Pieper says, “the dynamism of human existence itself, the spoken word proves utterly inadequate. Such realities, by their very nature (and also because of the spirit’s nature) exist before as well as beyond all speech.” These intimate and inexpressible realities are precisely why we can and do find pleasure and catharsis in music and visual art.

A logical argument, a well-organized essay, a finely crafted piece of literature – all of these of have their own undeniable value. But there are moments when a picture is still worth a thousand words.

The man in the wheelchair

Every evening as I leave the office I walk by a little man sitting in a wheelchair parked on the sidewalk, just out of the way of passersby. He has long scraggly hair, a long scraggly beard, and only one leg. It’s hard to tell his age – he’s no longer young, but he’s not terribly old either. What seems obvious is that he’s not altogether there, as he sits, cap in hand, turning his head from side to side, muttering to no one in particular and looking no one in the eye.

At least, that’s what I thought, until one day I stopped to offer him a blueberry muffin, and I looked into his face. He seemed startled, maybe because for once someone looked at him and saw a person. I know I was startled, because looking into his eyes I saw a soul.

He took the muffin, nodded and said, “Thank you, dear.” He has deep-set, dark blue eyes. I smiled into them for a moment longer and moved on. From that day I’ve tried to catch his eye every time I pass. One time he recognized me and said, “Nice to see you, ma’am.” Most times he’s too busy turning his head this way and that – a funny habit of his.

I started to wish that there was something more I could do to help him. And then today as I passed by him I noticed his glove had fallen onto the sidewalk by his wheelchair. I stepped near to him and stooped to pick it up. Again that startled expression, followed by a quick little nod and a thank you.

And it was then that it struck me. As much as we would like to get rid of all the suffering in the world, often this is all we can do for each other. A little treat. A smile. A small act of service. A prayer that the other person has a warm place to go at night. Or – the simplest and yet probably the most important thing – just looking into people’s eyes to let them know that you see them, that you know they exist, and are glad that they do.

Home

Last November my parents made what is hopefully the last big move of their married life, and left Vancouver for Montreal.

After a tearful goodbye at the airport, I got on the bus that would take me to a Skytrain station, and so on to Surrey, where I had been living for the past year – during the week, anyway. I still went “home” to Aldergrove most weekends – even if they consisted mostly of cleaning up and clearing out while the realtor brought around prospective buyers. As long as my parents still lived in Aldergrove, that was home to me, no matter where I laid my head during the week.

Don’t get me wrong. I will be eternally grateful to this good friend of mine who had offered me not only the extra bedroom and bathroom in her spacious townhouse, but also the space on the landing for my reading lamp, chair, and books; half her linen closet and kitchen storage; and the entire back end of her garage for all my extra stuff. Not to mention the fact that she herself is quiet, orderly, undemanding, and eats anything I cook for her (even the weirdest Pinoy food). I knew that when I got back to “our place” all would be clean, tidy, and peaceful. But as I made my way back to Surrey on that November day, feeling like an abandoned orphan, I was amazed to find that I was also homesick. I wanted to get on the bus that would take me over Langley’s long green hills to Aldergrove. I wanted to walk down the street from the bus stop and see the yellow siding and gray shingle roof peeking through the trees that separated our yard from the neighbour’s. I wanted to open the front door and find everything and everyone still there where they belonged – including the dog (and she had been dead for a year).

When you live someplace for a long time, you tend to put down roots, and it’s a wrench to pull them back up. Or worse, leave them behind: the neighbours whose children grew up along with your siblings, all the wonderful folks at church, the cashiers at the supermarket who know you by name, your fellow regulars at the gym, the waitress at the corner Japanese restaurant who doesn’t have to give you a menu because she already knows exactly what you’re going to order. The roses and peonies you set out in the garden; the cotoneaster, now running riot, that started out as seven small plants; the lilac bush that over the years became a tree. In the garden outside and in the empty rooms within are the ghosts of small children now grown up and gone, laughter over long-forgotten jokes, and echoes of conversations around a dining table that’s been packed up and moved away.

You know you will always remember them, and wonder if they will remember you.

And after a while you realize that the only cure for homesickness is to put down new roots and start being happy where you are.

To me, the word home will always bring to mind a picture of our happy little yellow house. Fortunately, my parents gave me the blueprints and tools to duplicate it, wherever I happen to be.