When Gifts Are Offered, Take Them: Advent in Nicaragua
by Kate Moos, executive producer
In the late 1980’s, an unlikely series of events carried me to Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to meet high-ranking political figures and rebel leaders. But, it was an unexpected encounter with an unknown woman in Managua during La Gritería that made the trip so memorable and changed the way I see the Advent season forever.
Back then, Ronald Reagan was the sitting president, the nuclear clock was ticking loudly, hemispheric relations were fraught with Cold War geopolitics, and the deployment of the state of Minnesota’s National Guard troops in central Honduras was part of a foreign policy that became a focal point for protest and debate. The state actually filed a lawsuit contesting the federal government’s authority to deploy the state militia overseas. Its significance is hard to grasp now, when our “weekend warriors” are an integral part of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was a different military and a different time then.
Revolutionary governments in the region were thought to destabilize American interests, even potentially the Panama Canal. In Nicaragua, the revolutionary Sandinistas toppled Anastasio Samoza, the last of a dynastic dictatorship. In El Salvador, “the disappeared” was a terrifying coinage used to describe the thousands of people who were killed by death squads.
In the midst of this as a local news reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, I accompanied a group of attorneys and lawmakers on a trip intending to learn about the long history of human rights abuses in the region, an important piece of history this blog post can’t begin to retell, and explore the constitutional and legal safeguards of those rights.
We had an exhausting itinerary and were being received by the highest ranks of Central American governments. We met with then-president José Napoleón Duarte in the presidential palace in San Salvador. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega came to meet with us in Managua.
These were, without exaggeration, dangerous times in Central America. As we rode from Sandino International Airport to the city of San Salvador, one of our guides nodded down a road where, a few years earlier, a Salvadoran death squad had murdered a group of church women. A couple days later we stood at the tomb of the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero, all but enveloped by flowers and cards containing personal prayers and petitions from the faithful. …
Remembering Begins Again
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
An unexpected package arrived in the post several weeks ago. A book. A gift to myself. Something I ordered over a year earlier. A memory of a memory. A truly moving account.
After a year of waiting, Phillip Toledano’s endeavor is finally published — and it’s gorgeous. I felt so utterly fortunate to experience his online chronicle the first time, and now I can hold this elegant book in my hands and share his story with my children. Find a reason to give Days with My Father to someone you care about.
Humming a BBC Melody in Fascist Portugal
Maria Clara Paulino, guest contributor
In response to Speaking of Faith's show about the brutality of regimes around the world and the question of the people who disappear — and their children — I thought I would share with you a scene from my childhood in Portugal during the country’s fascist regime that lasted for almost 40 years and ended in 1974.
I wake up in the middle of the night, as I often do, and walk slowly down the steps of the long staircase. I am eight years old. I come to join my father, who sits in his office listening to a small voice coming from a small radio. The sound is muffled; the words sound detached. I do not understand what it says.
He smiles at the sight of my face peering through the crack of the door.
“So, you’re up,” he says.
That is all he ever says, and I am free to come in or go back. I like that freedom. I sit on his reading couch; the leather is cold to the touch at first, but softening and embracing as I sink into it. Soon he forgets that I am there.
But today he asks me to sit facing him. His voice is stern: “It may be a good idea not to sing this melody outside of this room.”
For brief moments, like now, when the voice that says things I don’t understand stops, a melody fills the air. It is always the same. It is beautiful, and I often carry it into the light of day like a fragment of a dream. Earlier, my mother had given me a concerned look as I left for school, bag full of books, the melody drifting from my lips.
“Not outside this room,” he repeats. “Will you remember?”
I nod, silently. The man’s voice drones on. I stare at the radio. “What is he saying?”
My father looks troubled by the question. “It’s the BBC radio service, in English.” There is a long pause while he chooses the words. “They tell you the truth about what is happening around the world — and in our country too.”
The leather under me goes cold and hard, and my hands curl and cry with sweat. My heart thuds against my chest, trying to fly from the question searing through me: “Will they take you away too, like they took Maria’s father?”
I am looking at his hair; his face is buried in his hands. I want to pin him down and not let him ever leave this room.
Then he looks up. “Yes, that may happen one day. On that day and every other day until I come back, if people ask you, ‘Where is your father,’ hold your head high and tell them. Listen, listen carefully. This is what you will tell them: ‘My father has been arrested because he believes in freedom.’”
We are looking in each others’ eyes now and I see it all clearly: I cannot hold my father in this room, nor can I hold my heart still. I cannot even hold on to me. I watch my childhood leave so suddenly there is no time for remembrance or reckoning.
“Will you do that? Can you do that?” His urgency brings me back. And a voice I do not yet know answers, “Yes.”
Ms. Paulino teaches English Literature and Art History at the University of Winthrop and at the University of Porto in Portugal. She currently lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina and has recently started a personal blog where she writes about “musings on a home in-between: languages, places, ways of seeing.”
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Kindred Spirits: Studs Terkel and Mike Rose
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
In our program with Mike Rose, we are asking you to share your memories of school — moments when your mind came to life in a new way and shaped who you are in terms of becoming, longing, hope, and possibility. One of the memories that came up for me as we produced this program was reading Studs Terkel’s American Dreams: Lost and Found in a college sociology class.
That book inspired me, in the same way I feel inspired by Mike Rose, to consider the meaning of intelligence, to look below the radar and across lines of race, class, and occupation for what’s real, and to grasp how the reality of American lives often defies stereotypes I may attach to them. It also influenced my a love of storytelling, of oral history — Studs style — and an appreciation for the beauty that can be found in matters and people our culture often considers “average.”
So, it was fun for me to discover an interview that Studs Terkel did with Mike Rose in 1996 for Studs’ radio program out of Chicago. It’s classic Studs — filled with curiosity, passion, and his signature chatter. They wander through Rose’s book, Possible Lives, highlighting the public school teachers that Rose chronicled in four years traveling across the U.S. There’s a kindred spirit in their work, and even though it’s over a decade old, I found their conversation about imaginative educators defying the odds still very inspiring for today.
How I Am Preparing to Get Alzheimer’s Disease
by Alanna Shaikh, guest contributor
My father has Alzheimer’s disease. I am losing him in inches and pieces. It hurts. He is my hero and my mentor, and now I help him remember how to put on his clothes every morning.
My father has Alzheimer’s disease. There is a powerful genetic component to the disease, and I share a lot of my father’s risk factors, including bad triglycerides, a viral infection, and elevated cholesterol unaffected by diet. The odds are frighteningly high that I will someday get Alzheimer’s too. In 25 or 30 years, when it comes for me, maybe there will be a cure — but I can’t count on that.
My dad taught me how to learn from everything I see, no matter how hard it was. He was a professor of Human Anatomy and Physiology, and told me once that he was present when his mother died. He held her hand and told her how much he loved her. As she died, he catalogued her body’s shutdown, comparing it to what he’d read — because he was a scientist.
And so, now, I am learning from my father. It’s what he taught me to do. And what he’s teaching me now — his last lesson for me — is what it means to live with Alzheimer’s, and by extension, what I can do to get ready.
First, I am getting new hobbies. My dad is an intellectual. All his hobbies were brain hobbies — reading, chess, poker, bridge. Now he can’t follow them. He recognizes his beloved chess pieces, but he doesn’t remember how to play. Reading is too slow and too hard to be enjoyable, and he can’t play cards at all. He has no way to keep busy. So I’m learning hobbies that use my hands. I spend more time drawing, and I’m learning to knit. I want to teach my hands, so that when my mind can’t do it, my fingers still can.
Second, I’m living my life as fully as possible. Dad got knocked out of his game too soon, but he had achieved enough for a long, long life. The work he loved, and the impact he had on his students — it was more than most people do in their lives. His contribution to our world does not fall short, even if he ran out of time. I am trying to do the same thing — to give as much as I can to the people around me, to work and think and create and contribute as much as I possibly can, in case my time ends early.
The most important thing I’ve learned from my father: love. My father built his life around the people he cared about. Me, my mom, and my brother were the center of his world. For his birthday, he’d tell us to get things for ourselves because he liked seeing us happy — and he actually meant it. But we weren’t the only ones he loved. He loved the students he taught, he loved his friends, and he loved our extended family — both his own and my mother’s.
Now, with so little left of him, my father still has his love. Seeing his wife, his children, and his grandson brings him joy. He can sit just watching my son read a book. Simply living with his family, my dad can find happiness.
The people he cared about through his life still remember my father. We get postcards, letters, the occasional package. And he is still finding new people to care about; he hasn’t lost his love for people. He likes it when we have guests over. He still flirts with all my female friends. He loves his aide and the omelets she makes him every morning.
I have never loved people like my dad did. He had patience and affection for everyone — for people who told boring stories repeatedly, for people I thought were stupid, for people who were afraid of everything, for people totally full of themselves or so shy they could hardly talk. Dad loved people I could barely stand to talk to. He used to ask me to show patience, tolerance, compassion — and I’d promise to try — with no real sincerity.
So now I am trying to learn my biggest lesson from my dad, the lesson I am trying to live every single day. I’m finding people to love; I’m finding things to love in people. I am trying to love people like my dad always did. I am building my capacity for love now, so it can sustain me later.
And if, in the end, like my father, there is nothing left of me but my love, that won’t be a tragedy. It will be my victory.
All Souls’ Day
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
The confluence of the rambunctious American ritual of Halloween with the somber and sobering feast days of All Saints and All Souls that follow on its heels has always been confusing to me — never more so than when I was a child. Halloween ranked second to Christmas for the near-hysteria of our anticipation.
The thrill of dressing up to be something scary was delicious, especially so because, as the smallest and youngest member of my large Catholic family, I was much more experienced at being scared than being scary. Halloween allowed me to become the monster. This, no doubt, is at the heart of its hold over us. We’re able to put on the clothing of that which frightens us: darkness and death itself.
As the observance approached this year, I did a little research to remind myself of the roots of these rituals and observations: Halloween, or Hollow’s Eve, marks the night before All Saints’ Day, which falls on November 1st. Generally, it’s thought that the Solemnity of All Saints can be traced to the eighth century and was meant to honor the early Christian martyrs and, more broadly, all of the saints who have died and gone to heaven, or, as the Catholic Church would say, have attained the beatific vision.
All Souls’, which follows on November 2nd, is a day reserved for the rest of the dead — those who died in a state of sin and are being purified by the cleansing flames of Purgatory.
This observance began, some believe, in the eleventh century when, the story goes, it was reported to the Bishop of Cluny by a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land that he had met a hermit who heard the demons in Purgatory complaining that the intercessory prayers Christians said for their deceased shortened their time there. These days of the dead are commonly believed to be timed to ancient harvest festivals that marked the onset of winter, including the Celtic samhain and other earth-based pagan festivals.
There is something deeply intuitive about these festivals of the dead, coming as they do when the earth itself is preparing for its long slumber, the days are growing short and the night ever deeper. The idea of praying for, and tending one’s dead is ancient and universal.
For me, the concept of Purgatory is one I spent a lot of time with in my youth — pre-Vatican II, we were not only allowed but encouraged to say prayers for indulgences — a sign of the cross, spoken aloud, worked 100 days off one’s future Purgatory sentence, and I found it easy and quite satisfying to rip through several dozen signs of the cross in the occasional unoccupied moment. Of course no one could tell me what those 100 days meant, relative to Purgatory time, so I never felt I got ahead of the game. But I tried, even as I suspected there was something a little too easy about the practice.
More deeply puzzling, was reconciling the little witch I became on Halloween with the girl who sat piously in the pew for early Mass the next day.
(body photo: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)
"Life is But a Memory"
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
"There’s a harvest time for everything in the world. When an orange gets ripe, you either eat it or it rots. When a tree get so big it should be cut and used, because it’s gonna decay or rot back into the soil. And a human life is the same way — you have to learn to manage and take care of everything you have, or you don’t have anything."
Tom Rose is a 63-year-old farmer, father, and recent widower. This video profile of Rose by Soul of Athens — a project documenting the lives of the people in Athens County, Ohio — is a difficult but powerful tale of grief and loss. His reflections on memory combined with the video’s stark images reminded me of our Alzheimer’s show.
The Lessons of Buchenwald and War
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Today, Elie Wiesel walked the grounds of the Buchenwald concentration camp — the Nazi camp where he was detained as a teenage boy — with U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and fellow survivor Bertrand Herz.
The Nobel laureate was the last to speak and delivered a powerful reminder of the futility of war. Near the end, he quoted one of my favorite authors, the Algerian existentialist Albert Camus:
As I came here today it was actually a way of coming and visit my father’s grave — but he had no grave. His grave is somewhere in the sky. This has become in those years the largest cemetery of the Jewish people.
The day he died was one of the darkest in my life. He became sick, weak, and I was there. I was there when he suffered. I was there when he asked for help, for water. I was there to receive his last words. But I was not there when he called for me, although we were in the same block; he on the upper bed and I on the lower bed. He called my name, and I was too afraid to move. All of us were. And then he died. I was there, but I was not there.
And I thought one day I will come back and speak to him, and tell him of the world that has become mine. I speak to him of times in which memory has become a sacred duty of all people of good will — in America, where I live, or in Europe or in Germany, where you, Chancellor Merkel, are a leader with great courage and moral aspirations.
What can I tell him that the world has learned? I am not so sure. Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place, where people will stop waging war — every war is absurd and meaningless; where people will stop hating one another; where people will hate the otherness of the other rather than respect it.
But the world hasn’t learned. When I was liberated in 1945, April 11, by the American army, somehow many of us were convinced that at least one lesson will have been learned — that never again will there be war; that hatred is not an option, that racism is stupid; and the will to conquer other people’s minds or territories or aspirations, that will is meaningless.
I was so hopeful. Paradoxically, I was so hopeful then. Many of us were, although we had the right to give up on humanity, to give up on culture, to give up on education, to give up on the possibility of living one’s life with dignity in a world that has no place for dignity.
We rejected that possibility and we said, no, we must continue believing in a future, because the world has learned. But again, the world hasn’t. Had the world learned, there would have been no Cambodia and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia.
Will the world ever learn? I think that is why Buchenwald is so important — as important, of course, but differently as Auschwitz. It’s important because here the large — the big camp was a kind of international community. People came there from all horizons — political, economic, culture. The first globalization essay, experiment, were made in Buchenwald. And all that was meant to diminish the humanity of human beings.
You spoke of humanity, Mr. President. Though unto us, in those times, it was human to be inhuman. And now the world has learned, I hope. And of course this hope includes so many of what now would be your vision for the future, Mr. President. A sense of security for Israel, a sense of security for its neighbors, to bring peace in that place. The time must come. It’s enough — enough to go to cemeteries, enough to weep for oceans. It’s enough. There must come a moment — a moment of bringing people together.
And therefore we say anyone who comes here should go back with that resolution. Memory must bring people together rather than set them apart. Memories here not to sow anger in our hearts, but on the contrary, a sense of solidarity that all those who need us. What else can we do except invoke that memory so that people everywhere who say the 21st century is a century of new beginnings, filled with promise and infinite hope, and at times profound gratitude to all those who believe in our task, which is to improve the human condition.
A great man, Camus, wrote at the end of his marvelous novel, The Plague: “After all,” he said, “after the tragedy, never the rest…there is more in the human being to celebrate than to denigrate.” Even that can be found as truth — painful as it is — in Buchenwald.
Thank you, Mr. President, for allowing me to come back to my father’s grave, which is still in my heart.
Video of Wiesel’s speech here.
Elizabeth’s Fig, Remembered
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
The piece of paper pictured above is the same document discussed by Krista and Dr. Alan Dienstag in our recent program about Alzheimer’s disease, written by a woman suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. You can really see how the author, Elizabeth, struggled to finally articulate the simple, poetic recollection:
I can remember picking a fig from a tree in Athens. My lover watched me with delight.
Elizabeth wrote about this memory while she was participating in Lifelines, a writing group for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The Lifelines Writing Group was a collaboration between Alan Dienstag and the novelist Don DeLillo — and from Dienstag’s account, he was skeptical about the idea at first. However, DeLillo sold him with a simple statement, which Dienstag writes about in his essay reflecting on the Lifelines experience:
Writing is a form of memory. The phrase stayed with me for some time. I repeated it to myself and told it to others with whom I worked. I realized that for all of my work with people with memory impairments, I had thought very little about memory. To the extent that I thought about memory at all, it was in fact about the loss of memory. It had never really occurred to me to think about other forms of memory and the possibilities inherent in them.
I found myself gripped by the story of Lifelines, both on hearing his interview with Krista and then later when I read his essay. On an intellectual level, his account touches on the value of writing, the complexity of memory, and the power of collaboration — all things that I find fascinating.
But I think the real meat of the story is how it really gets to a deeper existential fear that we all share on some level — one that doesn’t require an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to experience. It’s something we also touched on recently with our program with Mercedes Doretti: a fear of disappearing. While Doretti touches on the emotional trauma caused by the disappearance of family and loved ones, Dienstag’s account of the Lifelines group gets at the horrifying prospect of losing one’s self.
This is why seeing these documents can touch on such a deep level — Dienstag calls them "acts of remembering," to me they’re small stones cast in a battle for the vanishing self, a battle that is in some ways won with every person that reads one of these memories.
Here’s another memory written by Charlotte, an 84-year-old participant in the Lifelines writing group. You can also read part of it in her handwriting here.
I remember the first time I walked with my parents on the bridge that went to Brooklyn. It was hard for me and I fell very often. My father would pick me up and carry me for a while and put me back to walk It took a little time to learn to walk all the way but I did. I remember as I write this about the cat that lived with us who also like to walk and when he saw us ready to go he was right with us and we loved it.
I carried a love for walking all through my life, and even now when things go bad I walk and things seem to get better.
I hope I’ll be able to walk as long as I live.
Alzheimer’s, Memory, Being
Krista Tippett, Host
This week’s program is another one that draws on my past and tugs fiercely at my heart. I write about my formative, wonderful, heartbreaking experience as a chaplain to Alzheimer’s patients in my online journal this week. When I wrote my book a couple of years ago, I had to recognize the men and women I came to love who had Alzheimer’s as being among my greatest teachers. And I found in Alan Dienstag the wise teacher and conversation partner about this experience that I’d been waiting for, without knowing it, all these years. He wrote to me afterwards that the conversation was very nourishing for him, almost therapeutic, and it felt that way for me too.
Like the best of conversations that delve deeply into particular human experiences and passions, as Trent noted after he heard the interview, it speaks beyond those particulars to the wider human condition. This is a mystery, and part of the reason I keep doing this work.
I’d also like to do a kind of shout out and thanks here to the Masonic Home and Hospital in Wallingford, Connecticut, where I spent several hours each week over 18 months that are now woven into the fabric of a radio program. Recently out of the blue I received an e-mail — through our show inbox — from Ray Cooley, who was the chaplain there and my mentor and supervisor through that experience. It meant so much to me to hear from him and to know that he’s listening!