A memory to sustain you as you suffer

In this clip, Rabbi YY Jacobson tells a powerful story about what saved a certain man when he was forced to undergo a death march as a child after his father had just been murdered.

Here’s that story:

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Treasure Trove of Memories

And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – Rainer Maria Rilke

This quotation of Rilke’s came to my mind while I was reading Dr. Bradley Birzer’s beautiful tribute to his grandmother titled, “A Brilliant Death: My Grandmother, 2003.”

Here’s an excerpt:

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The little deaths of goodbyes

I am getting ready to leave Canada’s capital city of Ottawa where I have lived and worked for the past four years.

As I prepare to leave, there are many farewells with friends. More subtle, however, is the occasional realization of having attended my last mass in a certain church, of having had my last coffee at a certain cafe, and of having brunched for the last time at a certain favourite restaurant.

Yes, I could be back here one day. But for now, I am saying goodbye and it’s uncertain whether or not I will ever be back to these specific people and places again. A lot of change happens year to year and the people who adorned your life in one season may not be there in the next.

This, I think, is one of the challenges of uprooting oneself or even of being uprooted due to some necessity.

But there is also something beautiful about it because, as I prepare to leave, my heart fills with gratitude and a sense of the preciousness of all of these particular encounters.

If there were not a last time for certain experiences and visits, there would not be the same sense of their value.

Perhaps this is partly what is meant by Augustine’s meditation on the Psalms: “He begins to leave who begins to love.”

Photo: The Shipping Container Coffee Shop Little Victories on Bank Street



Neither apathy nor indifference

“My public life is before you; and I know you will believe me when I say, that when I sit down in solitude to the labours of my profession, the only questions I ask myself are, What is right? What is just? What is for the public good?” – Joseph Howe

It was on this date in 1873 that Joseph Howe, “Defender of Freedom of the Press and Champion of Responsible Government in Nova Scotia” died in Halifax. He was a journalist, editor, newspaper owner, poet, member of parliament, president of the Privy Council, premier, and lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia.

A few years ago, while visiting Halifax, I chose to visit his grave at which I took the opportunity to read aloud with a friend Howe’s 1851 Letter to Electors, which ends with the poetic words: “A noble heart is beating beneath the giant ribs of North America now. See that you do not, by apathy or indifference, depress its healthy pulsations.”

Joseph Howe is known (if he is known at all, and that is rather unlikely in Canada these days) for having been charged with libel against which he argued passionately for “six hours and a quarter.” The charge came after his newspaper, the Novascotian, published a letter criticizing local politicians and exposing their corruption.

To get a taste of his rhetorical style, here is a brief excerpt:

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The beauty of deeds without repayment

This evening my friend shared a story with me about a couple she knows.

The couple is in their 80s and both the husband and wife are undergoing the loss of their memory.

This couple has been married for more than sixty years and they have three adult children.

One son and one daughter, who each have families of their own, have been committed to caring for their aging parents in the home in which they had all spent their life together as the children were being raised.

In an effort to preserve the routine and normalcy of family life, and in order to avoid needing to put the parents into a long-term care home, the adult son and daughter have developed a ritual of care.

Every single day, for the past six years, the daughter arrives to the home at 11:00 a.m. to serve her parents lunch.

And every single day, for the same six years, the son has arrived at 5:00 p.m. to serve dinner to his parents and then to open the door to the personal support workers who then take over in assisting with the parents’ care into the evening.

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My Last Visit with My Last Grandparent

I didn’t know it at the time, but April 11th, 2015 marked my last visit with my last grandparent.

Joseph Achtman (Zaida) died two weeks later, and I am so grateful not only for my final visit with him, but also that I took the time to journal about our visit right after the fact.

Here is an excerpt from exactly what I wrote in April 2015.

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Responding to Death with Poetry

My grandmother died on September 22, 2009 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A few days after her death, when I was 18, I wrote this poem in memory of her, which I just found again today:

A Tribute to My Grandmother

I first met my grandmother
When I was very young
She held me in her arms
Before I had turned one

My family ventured to Toronto
And she and grandpa came to Calgary
Those times were special then
Always remembered they will be

When I was only four
My grandma called me near
I didn’t like her nickname for me
She used to call me ‘dear’

So we agreed upon ‘Mandy’
This name for only her to call me
Her precocious little granddaughter 
And I would call her ‘Bubbie’

I remember the trips to Toys ‘R’ Us
With my brother to choose toys
We could pick almost anything
As long as it would bring us joy

My grandma loved education
And she always called me clever
She knew my commitment to my education
Would surely last forever

In her final years
Bubbie grew old and frail
But my grandpa visited her
Every day without fail

I learned unconditional love
Through the witness that they gave
To a love that knows no bounds
And to a love that is very brave

Sometimes it was hard to see my grandma
Lost and confused in her mind
Then I’d remember though
How much her heart was refined

My grandma’s life was a gift
From the God who I do praise
The Lord is compassionate and loving
In all His mighty ways

Ever since I was a child, writing has been my favourite creative outlet. Whenever someone would die or whenever I would grapple with the mystery of suffering and death, I would scribble words of poetry and reflection to contend and find meaning.

In addition to being a helpful outlet at the time, I find it interesting to look back on what I wrote in the past and to discover how sealing those memories through creative acts magnifies the memories I hold.

Chasing Memories

This evening a friend of mine shared with me about how she had led what she described as “a pretty death-free life” until the death of her grandmother.

Since my friend was a already adult when her grandmother passed away, this experience led her to make a few observations.

First, she noted that this grandmother, who had been a quiet, trusted presence in the family until the end of her life, was somewhat taken for granted by the other family members who presumed that this matriarch would somehow always be there.

Then, when she passed away, my friend said, “She became her whole life. Suddenly, everyone was pulling out family photos and trying to piece together the narrative of her early life. She became 5-year-old her, and 20-year-old her, and wedding day her, etc. seemingly all at once.”

The other realization my friend had was about all of the things that she didn’t know about her grandmother; her grandmother’s death became a reckoning for what my friend had and hadn’t taken the time to learn about her.

After losing a loved one, many people wish that they had taken the time to interview the person, to ask certain probing questions that never seemed urgent before, and to really capture a person’s story in their own words.

Accordingly, think of those you love the most and set out to encounter them in their depth and to record this encounter through writing, audio, or video. In the future, you may be very grateful for having done so, but the activity will also present the occasion for an encounter of depth during the relationship while you are both alive.

Photo: Screenshot from an hourlong video interview of my Zaida telling the story of how he came to Canada from Poland in 1937.

“We Gradually Deserve Those Who Demand to Be Helped”

There is a little book by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry called Letter to a Hostage. In the first part, the author paints a scene of emigrants aboard a ship. Even without more context than this, this passage is remarkable:

How to construct a new self. How to remake the heavy skein of memories? That phantom ship was crowded, like Limbo, with souls unborn. The only ones who showed any semblance of reality, so much so that one would have wanted to touch them, were those who, belonging to the ship and ennobled by real duties, carried the trays, polished the brass and shoes and, slightly scornful, served the dead. That slight disregard of the staff towards the emigrants was not due to their poverty. They were not lacking in money, but destiny. They were not attached to any home, to any friend, to any responsibility. They played a part, but it was no longer true. No one wanted them, no one would call on them. What a thrill it is to receive a telegram in the middle of the night, summoning you to the station: “Hurry, I need you!” We soon discover friends to help us. We gradually deserve those who demand to be helped. Of course no one hated my ghosts, no one envied them, no one bothered them. But no one loved them with the only love that is worthwhile. I thought: as soon as they arrive they will be taken into welcome cocktail parties, consolation suppers. But who will ever knock at their doors, begging to be let in. “Open, it’s me!” A child must be fed for a long time before he can demand. A friend must be cultivated for a long time before he claims his due friendship. It is necessary to spend fortunes for generations on repairing an old ruined castle before one learns to love it.

Such realities are best explained through stories and scenes and anecdotes; they are not abstract principles, though they are tinged with the mystery and depth that prevents them from being grasped, especially all at once.

Indeed there are many emigrants passing through life like souls unborn without ties and without purpose. And among the dead of expressive individualists, what could possibly be the meaning of: “We gradually deserve those who demand to be helped”?

Yet, as usual, the clarity comes in the juxtaposition between the cocktail party versus the “Hurry, I need you!”

The human person, every human person, is ennobled by real duties and real attachments. The love that is worthwhile is not “Can I get a photo with you?” or “Here’s my card.” The love that is worthwhile is the demand of someone in need who says and who means, to someone in particular, “It’s me. I need you!”

How I Will Live after the Pandemic

There is a miscellaneous text by Janusz Korczak (the Polish Jew who perished in Treblinka along with 200 children and staff of the orphanage he directed) that is titled, “How I Will Live after the War.”

In it, he notices how “about fifteen of them are keeping journals.” Most of the journals document life day-to-day and, occasionally, there are reminiscences about the past. However, “only once did someone write about what he was going to do after the war.”

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