Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This In-Between Month, Days 13-16: The Ones Left Behind

The days run together a bit, I could separate them, but the overlapping, the bleeding of thoughts one day to the next; life is more fluid than "x"s on a calendar. The last four days have been marked all the same, by conversations with a diverse cast of characters, by images with the edges blurred, by honest if not impatient prayers and what seems is heaven's silence. But then heaven will, promises to, make all things beautiful in its time.

At a little coffee shoppe in Ocean Springs I met Jack and Genevieve who are cycling across the South, from Savannah, Ga and then up to Alaska. They are warm and generous with smiles and conversation. They call Montreal home, although they have sold their belongings, quit their job and have no home to go back to. In fact, they are worried that when they do return to Canada a few months from now, everything will be so different and they will feel like strangers. I assure them it will probably be so. That they will see things they'd never seen before, the obnoxiousness of ads built to prey upon our deepest needs and fears. Selling community in a lite beer, acceptance in a new shirt, a sense of greater well being in a fragrance. They laugh when I tell them to be easy on their friends, the ones left behind.

Later, as I walk along the beach, the seagulls huddle on the sandbars, except for one.  He is riding a cold wind current, tunneling and spinning, diving and rolling and then straight up, like he was shot from a cannon. I always think of Richard Bach's little book Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the brave bird of the same name. Every time there is a solitary gull I am taken back to highschool and 16 years old. I picked the book because it was shortest but it left me buzzing for days, not at the philosophy Bach was intoning but the beauty of the story, the gentle defiance, the bravery and humility. If nothing else I learned that to live a life less ordinary, there are always the things and again, the ones left behind. 

A lighthouse in Biloxi and below a plaque commemorating "wade-ins" during the civil rights movement. Black and white activists would walk into the water together on Mississippi's segregated beaches. It took over 8 years after the first wade-in for a legal ruling to allow God's children of different colors to laugh and play together in the ocean He created for all of them.

I am reading a book called "Neighbors," by Jan Tomasz Gross about the Polish town of Jedwabne where all of the Jews were locked in a barn and burned to death on July 10, 1941, not by Nazis, but by their neighbors, fellow Poles. Gross writes that the Nazis moved into the little town, they "easily reached agreement" with local officials on what to do about the Jews. Hundreds, including women and children, were soon brought to the town square. They were taunted, tortured, brutally desecrated and beaten with clubs and stones, herded into a barn, which was locked and set ablaze. Gross recounts other acts of demonic cruelty that surely made the Nazis proud. Stories such as of Jedwabne, Dachau, the 27 million enslaved today and even the Biloxi wade-ins remind me that for any great act of evil or injustice there is always a majority of complicit bystanders. 

There was to my knowledge only one brave woman in Jedwabne, Antonina Wyrzykowski, 25 years old then, who In 1942 hid seven Jews on her farm while the Jews of Jedwabne were being massacred by her Polish neighbors. She had a husband and two children, all of whom were threatened with death if caught by the Nazis. Much later she would write: “It's not about your religion, but about whether a man needs your help”. Those rescued Jews hid on her farm until 1945, despite regular searches of the property by Nazis and a very “aggressive attitude from Polish neighbours”. When the Nazis were driven out of Poland by the advancing Red Army, she and her family were beaten by locals for hiding the Jews. Her bravery is recounted in Anna Bikont's 2004 book My z Jedwabnego (We from Jedwabne).

Antonina Wyrzykowski died in 2011 at the age of 95.

Today is grey again and how I've always imagined Poland. And that on a day as grey as today Antonia would have bundled up her children to leave Jedwabne for the last time. Maybe she limped a little, maybe her husband's face was still swollen from the beatings. They could no longer stay but what were they leaving behind, and who? Was it a family farm, a house her grandfather had built with his bare hands? Were her neighbors also her cousins? Maybe even her siblings? Sometimes bravery costs you everything but your own life, and sometimes of course, that too.

Our stories, the ones we live, maybe the ones we write, they are for ones left behind. Cautionary tales like Antonia's or hopefully like Bach's parable, to spur others on to great heights. It could be as simple as a bike ride away from corporate Canada, or as society shifting as a short civil rights march across a hundred foot stretch of sand. Every act of gentle defiance, every act of humble bravery is someone's story to be read of others. Stories that don't just deny convention, but destroy it. Like Em told me, there are those who live inside the box, those that live outside the box, and those that ask "What box?". It seems that in society, in church, in politics even, it is very fashionable to be iconoclastic, to live outside the box. But in truth those lives are still defined by that box. I want to live by that "What Box?" view. That reality for me that is inherent in the gospel, where Jesus is constantly destroying all convention, turning the world upside down with radical selfless behavior. Where foolish extravagant love is law and all things are possible, the highest heights, and the end of injustice and cruelty, if we will only let Christ destroy those boxes within boxes that hem in our brains and hearts. 

Here's to a gentler, braver future (raises coffee cup). To loving, serving, and defying with foolish extravagance and radical sacrifice. To you! And the story your life will tell!


  1. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one of my favorite books too! "Gentle defiance, bravery…." yup!

    1. I think the paper I wrote on it was longer than the book I was so stoked about that. Yup. Love that bird.