Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How Anne Frank changed my life.

When I first read Anne Frank's diary, no one told me she died at the end.  

This seemingly small detail in my life could be charted on my timeline, as a pivotal moment of shaping my entire life.

I wasn't reading the book for school, my mother just suggested I read it.  I knew it was about a girl around my age who lived during the Holocaust.  But in my experiences, mostly shaped by Hollywood, children always live at the end.  There are always happy endings.

Once I started, I couldn't put the book down; I read it almost non-stop.  And in the way good books do, she became my soul-mate while I was reading her story.  I connected with her humanity. When I got to the end of the book, everyone in my house was asleep and I was reading by flashlight.  I turned the page, realized it was the end.  And read the part about how she'd been taken to the camps and died.

Even writing about it, decades later, I remember that feeling.  It still conjures up this scrunching physiological emotion through my core.  I was appalled...am still appalled...that children were killed as part of that human destruction. 

It was because of that book...or perhaps more so, That Moment...that took me on a train by myself to Poland, to see Auschwitz and Birkenau.  Reading Elie Wiesel on the train on the way there, feeling so much human emotion that I didn't know where to put it all...didn't know what to do with what I was feeling.  

That same Moment is why I took the 13 hour night-bus to Sarajevo, Bosnia from Croatia -- just so I could talk to Bosnians, who were only 3 years out from the war.  Talking to Alex on the night-bus, and then escaping to the bus bathroom, so I could scramble to take notes and write down all the incredible details of what he told me.  Twelve years later, I'm amazed by how little I need those scrawled notes.  I remember with vivid detail what he told me, what he was wearing, the smell of his cigarette in the seat next to me.

At age 20, I really believed I was going to be a war journalist.  And while that part of me changed after I married Steve, had my children, a part of that never went away.  I owe it to my children to keep myself safe, not to enter war zones or take unnecessary risks while they need their mother so much.  

But from the moment I learned Anne Frank died, I needed to explore why humans do what they do to each other.  What happens to the people who survive those situations.

I also know it's why I was so drawn to the Lost Boys, to working with the Sudanese who survived genocide.  Maybe I felt like I owed it to Anne Frank to care for those who lived through similar human terror and came out on the other end.  Maybe it's because that book taught me that we are ALL humans, and feel human emotion, no matter what our era...race...country...religion. 

I don't think it's a simple answer, but I do know that everything that has come after it points back to that night under the covers with a flashlight, discovering as a young girl that these things exist in the world.  And knowing, at a deep level, that I was supposed to do something about it.  

What to do about it remains hazy at times, even now.  But I stumble across puzzle pieces along the way.  Working with the Sudanese families in Hampton Roads was a large part of the puzzle, definitely, but my dynamics changed when I left to come to Richmond.  I have been hunting for the next clue, the next puzzle piece, since we moved here.

I kept thinking it would happen down the road.  After my children were grown, I'd sit on the UN's steps until they found a place for me, even sweeping the floors.  Maybe there'd be a time it made sense to go into those war areas, and feed or clothe the refugees in the camps.  I wasn't sure.  

When I went to the Holocaust Museum in DC last month, I ended up on a one-on-one tour with a guide who works with the modern-day genocides: Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur (Sudan). He'd given tours for Nobel Peace Prize committees and the UN and knew so much. He and I spent 2 hours together in the exhibit, just standing there sharing stories and talking about genocide.

I told him that I wished I knew then what I knew now, and could have gotten a degree that helped somehow.  That my MBA seems a bit insignificant and I'm not sure how to be used.  That maybe when my children are older, I could go back to law school and specialize in refugee and international law. 

Then he told me about a visitor they had who worked on Sesame Street.  And how he just loved that, because he thought the way to really change the world was through children.  That right now, raising my children to be aware citizens was shaping the world more than I thought.  

That meant a lot to me. I think about that daily, and was ready to come back and "wait" to be able to do something bigger or broader.  

Then on Sunday, my friend Anne, Matt, and I happened into the Holocaust Museum here in Richmond.  I knew it was here, and wanted to go sometime, but really-and-truly did NOT expect much from it.  If it was so great, why didn't anyone ever talk about it?  

It floored me.  I've been to the actual Auschwitz museum in Poland...the one in DC twice...and have read books and books about the Holocaust.  And I was pummeled with information I've never heard or read.  Their exhibits were things I've never seen before, and they were done in a way that really captured the experience.  Climbing into that tunnel and seeing the family of mannequins crowded into the potato hole...where a real family lived for 9 months...was incredibly powerful.  

We stayed until it closed, and then went into the gift shop looking for a book for Anne.  She wanted a book of photos by George Kadish, and this man with a cowboy hat came into the room -- he was in his 70's, with a really kind smile. "George was actually a friend of mine," he said. "I'm in some of his pictures."  And then showed us the brochure of the museum, where he was a small boy on a boat.  The conversation progressed, and we found out that this was a man who had survived the Holocaust.  

I mentioned how powerful the exhibits were, especially the tunnel.  "I lived in that tunnel," he said.  "That was me."

He asked what made us interested in the Holocaust, why were we there? And Anne told him that we both worked with Sudanese refugees.  I told him that I really appreciated how they pulled modern-day genocide into the conversation, because it shows that while we can't fix the Holocaust, we can change what is still happening today.  He went on to say that they're opening up an *entire* floor about current genocide.  

Honestly: It felt like someone reached into my chest and punched my heart.  And then squeezed it.  My conversation from the night before with Steve, about how much I longed to work in the DC museum... and here I'm standing in an incredible museum just 20 minutes from my house.  And, we later found out, we were speaking with the founder of the museum.

He signed our books, one about his mother's life in the tunnel and the Holocaust, and we walked out feeling like we'd just met a celebrity.  

I emailed him when I got home, and heard back within the hour - on a Sunday night! - saying they'd love to have me as a volunteer.  I was supposed to call him on Monday, which I did.  We talked for awhile, and he said they could use me as a researcher or a docent for school groups, and make sure it worked around my family.

I could write so many things here, and completely dive off the cliff into my sentimental gratitude about life and circumstances and how much this means to me.  I'll try to contain myself. 

But I will say this:  As a mother, I really hope that my children's inner passions and callings can find them, the way it's been happening for me.  Not everyone feels magnetized into genocide - and what an imbalance in the world if we all were.  There are so many areas of human experience that need help.  But for many reasons...reading Anne Frank and others....this is where I am supposed to be.  For now, and who knows how it will shape down the road.

And perhaps this one last thought: I am the only one of my siblings to come out of the DNA pool without a disease that chopped IQ more than half and lowered life span.  I have never, ever felt like my life's blessings were my own efforts...because I have seen first-hand how much DNA, country of birth, era, and other variables are actually one of the biggest handouts you can receive.  And since I feel like I won the lottery (born in this era, in this country, with fully-functioning DNA), it makes me feel really lucky to use it to help even things out a bit.  Even if it's just a tiny part of a complicated situation, I can do what I can.

So much more to say.  But that's enough for now.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"So many artists and so much art..."

I love my children.  And I love museums.  And I even love museums with my children.  But it is a special category of recreation.  I can enthusiastically steer children, remind about not touching, and give little tidbits of knowledge on artists for several hours...until suddenly, it is TIME.TO.GO.  

We went to museums yesterday, the three kids and me. They wanted to see the Mummy exhibit at the VMFA, and then we went to the Historical Museum to see an archaeology exhibit for Jack.

I was feeling badly for Jack yesterday, as I could tell there was so much he wanted to see and read and do, but the age-span just didn't allow him to linger the way he wanted.  He was fascinated by the Russian arts room, and the Faberg√© eggs.  The very same room where Andrew was bouncing on the lovely settee in the middle of the room. On his knees, admittedly.  But still bouncing.

I leaned down and whispered to Jack (as we left the Russian arts to find a bathroom for Simone): "I promise we'll come back, just you and me."   And when I saw his face light up, I knew I would make sure it was soon.

I took the boys to W&M SEP all morning today and brought Simone with me, so Steve could do his work all day in peace.  We got home around 3, and then I took Jack out to the VMFA.

These things do not happen enough. 

Watching Jack navigate the museum, just the two of us, might be one of the best experiences of my entire life.  His grown-up little self, analyzing the paintings: "Cezanne seems like he was rushed."  Telling me things I didn't know: "Did you know prehistoric horses were about the same size as this horse statue?"  

And the Faberg√© room.  The Russian art.  I told him about the Romanovs and Rasputin.  We talked about why someone would make a spoon so intricate and fancy, if it's just for eating.  We probably spent about 45 minutes in that small room.  He looked at every display, asked questions and pointed things out. 

He noticed things I wouldn't have noticed, and I loved being with my son.

I talk (and think) about this often, about how a child emerges from you - and it can fool you into thinking that their personhood is somehow connected to you.  That you control or determine who they are...what they love and who they are...either through prodding or DNA or whatever.  

But the more I watch my children, the more I feel like a spectator in the greatest show I have ever seen.  Yes, I try to do things like support their passions and answer their questions and work really hard to help them become the person they're supposed to be.  

The most important elements, though, are so completely disconnected from anything I could have imagined for him.  Jack loves Russian and archaeology and dinosaurs and engineering things.  Andrew and his feisty, philosophical, superhero self.  Simone's almost ridiculous level of Francophilia, for one so young.  Today, she bit her muffin into the shape of the Eiffel tower.

I love watching them.  I love being with them.  I love being with them one-on-one, so the full measure of who they are can come out.  I can follow Jack around a museum, seeing what he wants to see.  Watching him read all the plaques, soaking it all in.

I am deeply, deeply curious about the man he is going to become.  I feel like I can see these glimpses of it sometimes, in the way he walks or talks or carries himself.  Sometimes, I'm stunned when I realize how truly small he really is.  There is so.much.person in there.

As we were leaving, he said to me: "You know what my favorite thing is about a museum, Mom?  It's that there are so many artists and so much art, and it shows me that there's a lot of ways to do great things.  You can just be yourself.  And if someone doesn't like it, it's just important that you like what you made."

Oh my goodness.  I love children. I love getting to be a part of this mystical journey of personhood forming.