On the eve of the invasion, the Allied commander penned a letter in the event of defeat. “The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do,” he wrote. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
Before dawn, 13,000 boys fell out of the sky into the hedgerows of Normandy. My mother-in-law’s father was among them. Don Bowman was a radio man in C Company, 501st Regiment, 101st Airborne. Each by each, the boys flew off the stick into a hail of fire. One out of five would die that day. Bowman did not.
There was the Day of Days.
And then there were the days after.
Bowman’s military records hint at his story.That year the 101st fought their way across Europe. Operation Market Garden. The Ardenne. Battle of the Bulge. Liberation of Dachau. Eagles Nest. One Purple Heart. A Bronze Star for meritorious valor.
Bullet after bullet.
Medal after medal.
Body after body.
Until victory was had.
But even in victory, the price paid cannot be measured. In 1969, estranged from his family, alone in Los Angeles, an alcoholic traumatized by war, Don Bowmanpurchased himself a cemetery plot.
When asked to list friends or family, he wrote, “None.”
Those boys gave their lives to save Europe. And now that confederation is being abandoned for want of leadership and the erosive force of nationalist and isolationist fervor.
On this day I think of Don Bowman.
I think that perhaps we owe him more than simple remembrance.
People gathering near the cathedral in August 1944 after Allied forces recaptured Paris.
Why does the burning of Our Lady affect me so?
I’m not a practicing Catholic or even a Christian really. So why should this conflagration matter?
Although I am not of Christian faith, Christian tropes do apply here.
The Notre Dame Cathedral was designed in the form of a cross, and the bell towers stand at the position of Christ’s feet when he was brutally nailed to that Tree of Life.
The spire once rose directly above the center of the architectural crucifix – that ashen vehicle of sacrifice – and when the spire burned and fell, it pierced the nave like a spear piercing the heart, not of Christ, but of the Christ.
And like the original crucifixion was so intended, this sacrifice may perhaps have shaken us again from a slumber.
When the great teacher and expositor of belief Joseph Campbell was once asked where he prayed, he answered simply, “Notre Dame,” Our Lady. Even if he had not been there in years, he explained, her profound space was still his spiritual home.
But the sorrow over her burning is not about denomination. Nor is it necessarily about Christianity or Islam or any other belief system. The burning matters not so much because it is even a religious thing.
It matters because it is a human thing.
It matters because for many it was a place of secular pilgrimage. How many of us have taken pictures of ourselves with family or a fiancé there among the gargoyles and demons, as if to say, we one day will die, but here, if just for a moment, we once lived and we once loved.
It matters because Notre Dame is the symbolic center of France (and you could even argue modern Europe and in general the West) – Ground Zero if you will – from which all distances are measured.
And the center – in a time in which the center struggles to hold – matters.
In his recent book, The Road to Unfreedom, Yale historian Timothy Snyder documents how in a highly calculated way foreign actors have worked to undermine political and social cohesion in the United States and in Europe. A third of Brexit twitter posts were generated by bots as part of a covert Russian media and troll campaign. The same forces have launched sophisticated social media campaigns in the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, France, and the US intended to invalidate liberal democracies. Deliberate untruths foment social divisions, including the Yellow Vest movement that has torn apart Paris.
But this is not just about one nation’s imperatives pitted against another. It concerns an assault on truth itself. We are being incited to let ourselves be governed by emotion and impulse, by vague belief in what we wish to be true and not in facts themselves.
As our fears are stoked, the spectres of authoritarian governments have risen across Europe and within the United States. Authoritarian leaders do not necessarily seize power. Afraid, we willingly give it up.
In this strange world, fact and truth are denigrated. Chaos becomes the brand, disintegration the goal. By turning us against each other, more can be accomplished than through a multitude of guns.
As our passions become inflamed, the centre cannot hold.
And without a moral or spiritual or truth-bound center, unhealthy impulses grow to fill the void. We frame anyone beyond our immediate tribe as outsiders to be either vilified or feared or destroyed. We turn our selves away from one other.
It took 183 years to build Notre Dame, slightly less time than the United States itself has even existed. Our Lady represents the greatest of human endeavors – that painstaking and collaborative work that contributes in some small way to a great edifice beyond our own cognition. Something so vast in conception that in Our Lady’s first construction, neither the first stone masons nor their children nor their grandchildren would ever live to see her completion.
She is about honoring something greater than one’s self.
Call it the perfection of democracy. Or human emancipation, or equality, or the extension of universal rights to all forms of life, or the prevailing of truth over momentary whim or lies or fancy.
So, strangely then, her burning may now promote a different kind of faith. Not necessarily in God, but perhaps in us. Not the us vs. them, but the very center that is simply the collective and embracing us.
For decades the foundation dedicated to preserving Notre Dame struggled to raise funds. But in the hours after the fires were extinguished, more than 600 million euros poured in from donations both quite large and incomparably small. We donate because, perhaps, we’ve been awakened to the thought that the center must indeed hold.
Her burning matters because it reminds us of the profound need to come together in a time when individuals and forces are doing all that they can to drive us apart.
A deluge of rain outside, though the air is saturated with a brilliant light.
Perhaps these are not great things, but they are the small matter that is my life.
I intended to reflect this morning on this slightly beyond the midpoint, but instead I found myself texting the son of a friend who sat somewhat bored in his high school history class in Rhode Island.
Why?Because he faces forward.And because I am facing back.And I can’t help but think that he could use an outstretched hand if not from me, than perhaps his future self.Someone perhaps to just assure him that everything is going to be alright.
On most days I work on the creek.Our friends call it Frog Creek, but I call it the Mighty Froggy. I imagine it as having the grandiosity of the Mississippi, the potent history of the Ganges, the raging force of the Amazon.
But it’s really just a little creek that cuts across the property.
And when asked, I tell people that I’m restoring it, but really I just spend a few hours each day carrying about buckets of dirt and stone debris and placing fallen branches against the banks.
I watch how the water flows.I’ve learned a little bit about water and silt.I’m slowly learning the personality and rhythm’s of this little stretch of water and the plants and animals that co-inhabit it.I tell myself that by doing this I am making the world a better place.
Granted, it’s not much.So little in fact, that my wife rightly asks if that’s what I want to be doing with my life.
The answer is, well, no.But it is, in fact, what I am doing.For whatever that’s worth.
On the occasion of his fortieth birthday, Joseph Brodsky wrote
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
Even with an additional 14 years logged, my life has lacked such grandeur.I have braved neither wild beasts nor steel cages.Depending of course on what kind of steel cages to which one might be referring.
Brodsky was born in Leningrad, but I might hazard that he was really born in St. Petersburg, or affectionately known as Pyötr by native born Russians.
His language seems to predate all things Soviet. And his body now sleeps in the San Michelle Cemetery, in the Venice lagoon, in the spit of that city that he so loved, the canaled dream that he ventured to only in winter because it reminded him of some foggy glassine version of the city from which he’d come.
Fitting that the rising oceans will subsume equally his native city and his final resting place.
The summer after he won the Nobel prize I was in Moscow during the optimistic dead center years of perestroika.I was there on a general tourist visa under the auspices of Volunteers for Peace which sponsored non-traditional tourism in the Soviet Union.While there, the organizer, Peter Coldwell from Vermont, fell ill, or broke his back or legs or something, and he had to return home.I was one of the few participants who spoke a bit of Russian so he asked me to assist two graduate students at Moscow State University in coordinating things for the group.
The day after Peter left, however, the students, pulled all 25 of us together.They were exhausted, yet running on a kind of manic energy.They had to apologize.It was terrible, they said, but they had done the impossible.It had taken days, but an opportunity had presented itself and at unheard of pace and through good fortune they had commandeered the necessary papers and resources. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, they tearfully explained, for which they had to abandon everything. In a few hours they would board a plane and they would fly to New York City in America.They were going to visit Joseph Brodsky.
You are in charge, now, they told me.And one sobbed and hugged me as he stepped off the bus.I’m so sorry we are letting you all down, he said.I am so sorry.
On my 54th birthday I wonder about those two graduate students.And I wonder about the conversations that they must have had with the poet.
And I wonder if this in fact even happened, or if it happened in the way that I recall.If our lives are composed of memories and those memories themselves are suspect, then what really do we have left to call our own?
We all are in the process of dying.
I think today of friends who, if not dying, are driving perilously close to the abyss.And I can say for certain that such a vantage, despite its commensurate fear and sadness, promotes a heightened if not unwelcome sense of living.That’s not meant as a consolation because there can be none.So it stands only as an assertion of limited truth.
I think of you all because you’re the ones I want in the room right now.
This morning I also binge listen to my daughter’s music.I listen to her all of seventeen singing on an open stage one of the first songs she had ever written.
She writes far more fluently than I ever did at her age. And I would trade all my future years for the youthfulness and competence and execution of her written voice.
So perhaps if ever there were to be a suggestion of what I’m feeling on this day, fifty-four years from when I was born, it would be this.
And I tell myself as I do each year, I am going to write something for you all.
As a 14 year old girl she travelled on foot the breadth of Europe fleeing the advancing Soviet troops. If she and her father and brother had not fled their native country, they would have died. Their knowledge of this fate was so certain that they eventually risked death to escape it. And for that, they journeyed on a hard, hard road.
My mother would spend her teen years in displaced persons camps in Germany. For five years she lived in detention. She did not have a country that she could go back to. And neither did she have a new one to which she could belong.
And she was abandoned in more ways than one. Her mother died during the war. In flight as a young girl, she was separated from her father for months at a time. These things took their toll. Later in life she would have a hard time forming attachments. She was prone to depression. As a grown woman, she would have difficulty sleeping. She would cry uncontrollably in the night. She was short of temper. In her bouts of sadness and rage, she could sometimes be violent.
But then again, perhaps she had it easy. In February 1945, as a young girl she joined hundreds of thousands of European refugees as they pressed toward the Elbe river. The Yalta Conference had just concluded, and by word of mouth, she learned where the borders would be drawn. Get across the Elbe, the people told one another. Across the Elbe you will be with the Americans.
My mother and brother were instructed to make peace with the American soldiers when they arrived. They were told to just surrender. If nothing else, at least you will get fed, people said. That was quite often the sentiment, my uncle once recalled. You will get fed and you will be taken care of.
Because the Americans don’t mistreat their prisoners.
Bread, the very symbol of daily sustenance across time and cultures. And to Andrew Lewis and his World War II surviving family members a special bread has special meaning.
As a last act before a recent move, I baked two loaves of rupmaize.
It’s basically a Latvian rye bread – but it’s much more than that, partly because it’s much less. It’s essentially rye flour, water, a little yeast, and some sort of yogurt or kefir (call it turned milk). Mix it up, let the yeasts start to do their thing and then throw in a warm box (call it an oven) to arrest the action. You end up with these loaves that are some crazy cross between that hearty bread eaten by dwarves and that ethereal cake of which elves partake. It’s both sweet and sour. And it sustains.
During World War II, when Latvian families were loading up their wagons preparing for evacuation, no doubt women all over the countryside were hastily wrapping still warm rupmaize in cloth and packing it in baskets. It’s powerful stuff: One slice in the morning and you’re good until mid-day when a second slice keeps you going until afternoon. It can keep you fed when you may not have access to a kitchen for days or months on end.
The year I lived in Cleveland with my aunt and uncle, my uncle would end the day with a slice of rupmaize and some tea. As part of his ornate ritual, he would fill a ceramic mug with deep black tea and would slowly lather a slice of rupmaize with butter and honey. This was his dessert. He was very particular in the details and I remember him once giggling as he explained them to me. But I was only twelve and I didn’t get it.
For my uncle, a survivor of war and tragedy, this was sacrament. Literally, give us this day our daily bread. As if to say, this stuff is the staff of life. We deserve no more, and just this is enough. A little bit will carry us in a time of need.