When I am in certain European countries, those that were Nazi occupied during World War II, and I see these little old-fashioned trains, I am pricked with a feeling of nostalgia and a little morose. I have felt it in Brussels, Prague, Munich, Krakow, and now, Vienna. The mass movement of people was such a theme during that time. I can picture regular citizens trying to get by, catching the train from, hopefully, a job to, hopefully, a roof over their heads. I can also picture frightened Jews as the circle of their worlds diminished until they finally submitted to board the trains that took them to their deaths at Birkenau, Auschwitz and many other death camps. I can’t help this association. I want to be all about the pretty architecture and chocolates, but it is these trains that sober me and make me wonder if I could live in one of these cities. All of these 50 years plus since that era, I believe those societies still hold the collective memories of the compromises that were made and the grand-scale societal shortcomings they would like to think themselves incapable of, but aren’t entirely sure about.
My friend Tina grew up in Austria. I met her when we taught together at the Lincoln School in Kathmandu. Tina, though not an old woman, was already a knowing expat by the time I moved there. She, herself, moved to Nepal as a teenager of 19. She was having a religious philosophical discussion with some friends in Austria at that time in her life and based on her viewpoints, someone said, “Tina, I think you are a Buddhist.” Like the Christian call, take up your cross and follow me, Tina moved to the primitive suburb of Kathmandu called Boudha, moved into a monastery, studied Tibetan, and subsisted on the simple street food of dal bhat. When I met her, years into her life’s commitment, she taught full-time at the American school and then studied and served about an equal amount of time at the monastery. A mutual friend said of her that she was perhaps the only true Christian she had ever known and it could be true.
My birthday is on March 4th. I have always loved the pre-spring awakening and extending daylight hours of my birthday, but a librarian I once worked with had made March 4th into her own little holiday. It was, for her, a celebration of marching forth into spring and the year I worked with her, she put a John Phillips Sousa march on the all-school PA system and then went classroom to classroom to file the children out and into a grand march around the school.
One year in Kathmandu, my birthday fell on a Friday, the day we had an extended all-elementary assembly. The organizer of the assembly and I decided that in honor of my day, we would put on some march music at the end and march the students out of the assembly and back to their classrooms.
Tina came to me after the assembly. Being as honest as she is kind, she needed me to understand something. She didn’t want to diminish anything from my birthday, but she and the other European teacher had found the march activity disturbing. Having grown up in Belgium and Austria, respectively, they were highly sensitive to marching music and in fact, it had been outlawed throughout their childhoods. They understood that for Americans, marching was victorious and patriotic, but for them, it was terrifying and shameful. I was so grateful to her for teaching me about that cultural difference. It is part of what I feel when I am in Europe: the restraint and carefulness, and it explains a lot.
We are working through our own tragedy here at our school in Tunis. There was the event and then there have been layers upon layers of compounding loss, most of which have been in the form of relationships. Someone recently reminded me that death and tragedy show you who your friends are. I never actually understood what that meant. I thought it meant that those events called your friends out to help you or not, like show up to spend time with you, and that is part of it.
The other part is that these events illuminate your friends’ priorities and how they think, predominately, whether mostly about themselves or about others. I have seen some confounding behavior from friends in this circumstance that has left me in actual, physical shock. And what is additionally tragic for them is that they are sometimes making further self-destructive decisions. Quitting their jobs and moving to escape a traumatic event like we have experienced throws them into additional stress stemming from unemployment, uprooting and moving.
I ask myself, am I going to lose friends over this incident? And then I think another way to frame the thought is that those friends may have become lost to me through this experience. The relational structure we previously had isn’t there anymore. There is no more trust and there are far too many topics that we can’t touch upon in conversation, making communication a verbal landmine field. I am not trying to intentionally carve people out, but I am wondering if some relationship branches are losing life and may need to be pruned, eventually, to promote new growth.
Another friend recently pointed out to me that we are still very much in this experience. It isn’t past yet. We are in a different stage of it, but it is still happening. Knowing that helps me understand why I feel like I’m still responding and not quite yet moving past. I think I will be soon, but there are still parts of the fallout that continue to rain down. I am trying to find a way to be kind and also true to myself each day.
I borrow the title for this post from the beautiful Young Adult novel called When Your Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Her chapter heading came to me at a significant time in my process this fall and has remained as a guiding theme. Our school will have a stain, now. We are marked with tragedy and it will be part of our legacy. Will that be our defining characteristic? Absolutely not. We have a bigger than usual group of bright, dedicated educators joining us next fall and some wonderful prospects for growth on the horizon. The new recruits know about the tragedy we recently experienced and some are inspired by it and intentionally want to be part of the rebuilding. The rest have decided it doesn’t affect their feelings about living here. I personally think we are going to use our badge of pain as a launching point, and then reinvent ourselves into what we always wanted to become.