Encountering “God” on an Icelandic Mountaintop
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Jim Gates recites a short story at “Toil and Trouble: Stories of Experiments Gone Wrong” at the World Science Festival held at The Moth at Symphony Space on May 29, 2008 in New York City. (photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
There are times in our worst hour when we discover that what will save us is just the thing we’ve been doing our whole lives. String theorist Jim Gates had one such epiphany, hearing an unembodied voice telling him to make his own trail while alone on a mountaintop in Iceland, clinging to his mortality. Check out this story from The Moth.
This is storytelling at its finest and its darkest, but Auslander’s wry sense of humor and delivery give the heaviness of the situation a light touch. For those of you with delicate sensibility about the Holocaust or profane language, be forewarned. He does swear a few times and is brutally honest about his visit to a concentration camp in Germany. His ending is worth it and his point all the more salient because of this humorous approach.
Some people have a way of bringing laughter to deep, painful sorrow - but not in a way that ignores or diminishes the reality of that sorrow. It’s like some people have this ability to see the microscopic punchlines and jokes even in the darkest of places. Writer Shalom Auslander has this ability. Here, he tells a live story with The Moth in NYC about his reluctant trip to a WWII death camp. And if you like this, you can hear more stories from him on This American Life, read more stories in his (amazing) books & articles, or listen to him talk with Terry.
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Touch. Solomon on The Moth.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Working for Speaking of Faith (soon-to-be Being) has ruined me. My life is invaded with connections that I otherwise would’ve been oblivious to. So vacations are never completely free of imaginative associations. Nevertheless, I’m thankful. It’s a gift.
A lazy Saturday afternoon. My two boys down for a nap. My wife writing. Me? Cleaning the kitchen. To enliven the mind while performing this domestic simplicity, I cue up a recent edition of The Moth podcast. And who should be the storyteller? Andrew Solomon — a former guest on "The Soul in Depression" who most recently took the stage with Krista at the New York Public Library.
In the audio above, he tells the remarkable story of Cambodian woman he met while doing research in that country. He wanted to understand what happens when an entire nation has been subjected to a trauma. This Cambodian woman had survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.
In a resettlement camp, she started a group to help shattered women refugees rendered lifeless by the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime. As Solomon tells it, she developed three steps to bring these women back to society and help them rediscover their humanity. It’s the third step that struck me and reminded me of a Quaker’s story from 2003:
“‘I would teach them the third thing: which was to perform manicures and pedicures.’ … She said, ‘You know, the worst atrocity of all that was brought by the Khmer Rouge was that half the country turned against the other half of the country. And people who lived through that period knew that they couldn’t put anything in anyone else, and they completely lost the habit of looking anyone else in half in the eye.’
She said and ‘All of these women had been deprived for a long time of any occasion to indulge in the least bit of personal vanity. I brought them to my hut, and I built a special room that I would fill with steam. And it was a pleasure for them to feel beautiful. But what was really amazing for them was that, in this context, it was something that was at once very intimate and very impersonal. And they would start, because I was telling them how to do it and giving them some instruction, to handle each others’ fingers and each others’ toes. And it meant they were touching each other. And if I had told them to begin to hold each others’ hands or to have some kind of physical contact with other people, they would’ve shied away and they would have pulled back. They weren’t ready to do anything with anyone. But, in this context, they would touch each others’ fingers, touch each others’ toes, and then, because it was such a funny context, and because they felt so happy about the fact that they were, for a moment, feeling a little bit beautiful again, they would begin to laugh together. And they would begin to tell each other little bits of stories and things and that was the way that I taught them to trust again.’”
This idea of slowly finding and gently rediscovering one’s humanity through touch is powerful testimony. Testimony I had heard in another story by Parker Palmer, who also appeared in "The Soul in Depression":
"I’ll just tell that story quickly, because it’s such a great image for me. … There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.
What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”
If there’s one thing you do this weekend, take 15 minutes and listen to Andrew Solomon’s story. And, then, pay attention. Those connections are waiting for you to be made — and to be shared.
Now that I’m done with the dishes I think I’ll rub my wife’s feet. Well, maybe…
And, then, I later read ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle, and it tells you to find a shaft of sunlight and sit in it every day. So my boyfriend was, like, following Eckhart Tolle’s weird sunlight advice and finding it. And then he ended up using ‘The Power of Now’ to break up with me. So, like, it had turned against me.
We’ve received countless stories about the positive impact of Eckhart Tolle’s teachings on people’s lives. I had to smile when I heard this humorous story from a person who was on the receiving end of his guiding principles. If you work on SOF long enough, you hear the most surprising references to all types of material and people on the program!
Trent Gilliss, online editor