Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being?

Colors of Autumn
Colors of Autumn by Romain Guy, Copyright 2009, adapted under license by Virgil T. Morant. Original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/romainguy/3922488078/

In the autumn of 1939, a thirty-three-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich, living in a Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, finished his Symphony No. 6 in b minor as his country invaded Poland, and my mother, then four years old in the Greece of Ioannis Metaxas and his 4th of August Regime, lived under the threat of Axis invasion from both Italy and Germany.  The following autumn Italy attacked Greece, and the year after that, shortly before Adolf Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and attacked the Soviet Union, Greece was invaded by Germany.  Metaxas did not live to see the German invasion, but of course my mother did, and she spent a brief part of her childhood under the German occupation.  She would later leave her native country for America as a young woman.  Shostakovich, on the other hand, occupied and oppressed principally by his own country's leadership, finished a couple of more symphonies during the War, and he remained in the Soviet Union until his death.

Mom, who early in my own life always recalled her childhood in Greece as a warm and happy one—to her, it seems, a childhood likeness of springtime, and yet to me a hazy icon of a foreign autumn—had nonetheless among her earliest memories the memory of warfare.  The War did not constitute any part of the stories she volunteered to me in my infancy, but, as I grew older and realized by a simple consideration of my mother's age that she must have lived through World War II, I began to inquire a bit.  So she told me a story, for instance, of running for a shelter and being terrified by an explosion and a fragment of metal—shrapnel perhaps, or maybe just an odd something or other unsettled by the blast—that became stuck in her clothing and yet did not harm her flesh.  I cannot say for certain now, but it seems to my memory that she did not realize she had been thus untouched by the flying whatever-it-was until after she had reached the shelter.  Removed it from her clothes, relief felt by all, no doubt.  As I learned German in school, I became especially curious about the forces occupying the country.  So she told me that members of the Wehrmacht had been quartered in her home.  What she remembered most about them was how polite they were.  She was impressed by the courtesy they showed to her mother, my grandmother Panagiota (Παναγιώτα).  Bear in mind that these men were very likely not Nazis; certainly they didn't have to be in order to serve in the German Army: perhaps they were indeed decent men.  Or perhaps they were just well-mannered scoundrels.  In any case, other men, who were without question indecent (to phrase it with an undeserved charity), were also about some business in occupied Greece, and in answer to perhaps the last thing I asked my mother about it all I learned how my grandfather Christos (Χριστός) had been asked by Jewish friends or acquaintances to hold onto their valuables while they traveled abroad as guests of their Nazi occupiers.  Pappou Christos declined in fear of the potential consequences.  Certainly a realistic choice, and not just in protecting himself and his family from punishment: doubtless, many of those whose possessions he was offered would never come back to reclaim a thing anyway.  Sent off on this train or that, a good many of them must have met their deaths in places like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka.

In beastly and botanical nature, autumn may be a time when the warmth and bounty of summer falls under the cool veil and increasing darkness of the new season, but this should not be regarded as inherently sad: it is a transformation in preparation for the infertility and lethargy of winter, which is itself nonetheless somehow also a time of quiet regeneration, and, in those climates that know all four seasons, even the longest or harshest winter has a discernible end in spring.  In human affairs, however, the fall may be deplorably long with no rational or natural purpose, or it may be perilously brief: a period of unremitting decay or an inadequate preparation for one's spiritual winter.  The winter itself for any man alone or for any society or communion may also be very brief, or it may be protracted beyond all natural discernment of its end, and who indeed can know whether a severe winter for the spirit even will end, at least whether it will during one's time in this world?  There is no calendar for such things, no orbit, no tilt, and no rotation of the spheres we can readily apprehend that governs these often incongruous spiritual seasons.

All of Shostakovich's wartime symphonies are worth listening to (some readers will also remember that I said a bit about his Symphony No. 8 in a prior essay, לֹא אעבוד), but the Symphony No. 6 is an especially striking example of incongruity.  It has only three movements.  The first constitutes over half the symphony's length, a largo alternating between loud cries of anguish and quiet solo melodies of various instruments above sinister harmonies, all of it deeply lonely.  The second and third movements are a weird contrast to that.  They are brief, upbeat, and boisterous in a way that, upon the symphony's uproarious final notes, easily evokes immediate applause and cheers from an audience, and yet what do we applaud so exuberantly?  A frolicking end that shows no rational relation to the first movement's lament?  A corrupt regime that moved the composer to call his prior symphony a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism and then to follow with this?  Warfare overtaking Europe?  The winter siege of Stalingrad that was not many seasons hence to take place, death then heaped upon a people steeped already in capricious death and countless instances of personal exile?

It is a tricky course to characterize a musical composition in light of history, but these things are not irrelevant to Shostakovich's work.  To be sure, I applaud the symphony as much as the next patron—and I've seen it performed, if memory serves, four times, so I've had plenty of opportunity to do so—but let's recognize that what we applaud is a sarcastic triumph.  Now, sarcasm may often be employed ham-handedly and too lightly by nitwits who think too highly of themselves (it may also be a word that some of them substitute for irony), but in the Symphony No. 6 it is employed aptly and with sophistication and indeed seems to have passed imperceptibly before the imbeciles, toadies, and fools who ran Stalin's Soviet Union, since the composer suffered no official censure for it.  It is a bitter triumph, merriment incongruous to what preceded it and indeed incongruous and absurd in the life of its composer and his country.

If it is a tricky course to analyze a musical composition in light of its historical season, then it is forty years' worth of desert to search for the spirit and meaning of one's departed and mostly unrecorded ancestry. I have been given to reflect on these things on account of a dense series of events and anniversaries this season.  The recent Cleveland Orchestra performance of the Symphony No. 6 got me to thinking about the youth of the composer, the infancy of my mother, and the turmoil of the world at that time.  Other events have more especially been commemorations, some of them dates of private significance, and I am also immersed further in this rumination by autumn and its dissipating daylight.  Fall never used to be a time of painfully blue moods.  I used to find it tranquil and comforting, but it is so no longer.

St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki
St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki
Among the events that call to mind my mysterious heritage is the recent feast day, October 26, of Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki, my mother's native city.  St. Demetrios was a soldier and official in the late third and early fourth century Roman Empire, and he preached the Gospel of Christ with considerable success to many pagans at a time when the Empire was still hostile to Christianity.  For his efforts and for his refusal to recant the faith, he was locked up in the basement of a bath by Emperor Galerius on a visit by the latter to Thessaloniki.  A young man named Nestor, who was in fact barely more than a boy, was inspired by St. Demetrios and wanted to put on some sort of defiant display before the visiting tetrarch.  So he asked Demetrios in his bathhouse prison for a prayer and a blessing, which he received, and then he volunteered himself for the gladiatorial games.  His opponent, one Lyaios, was a beast of a man, undefeated in combat and, it seems, some pride to the Emperor.  Nestor said a prayer and killed Lyaios with a single strike from his dagger.  Killed that pagan dead.  Galerius flew into a rage and had young Nestor beheaded.  Demetrios was then run through with lances.  St. Nestor's feast day is the 27th of October.

St. Demetrios is beloved of Thessalonikans, patron and protector of their city, and indeed beloved of Greeks on the whole, and many Greek Orthodox parishes around the world are named after him.  My mother found one in Greater Cleveland as a woman of early middle age, and I attended it to varying degrees as a boy.  My most devoted attendance was as a young teenager, when I served as an altar boy—under, I always like to note, a young subdeacon who has long since become a priest and now serves a local parish: alas, the very parish I departed several months ago, but presided over by a man I remain nonetheless fond of.

I turned with some devotion to the faith as a teen, the last years of my most ardent Christian devotion in youth, because I was unhappy.  What is most notable here is that I made the choice to be involved quite on my own.  We were not much of a church-going family.  I didn't even know St. Demetrios's story.  Even though we rarely attended services, I had still nonetheless been to that church many times, and then I was there every Sunday as an altar boy, and yet it was not until I was in my twenties that I learned about the man who was patron saint to that parish.  Not unlike how no one ever told me about my own patron saint: in childhood I knew that I had a name day, but I didn't know what that quaint occasion meant.  I learned the identity and story of the saint of my name day when I was about twenty-three years old, upon the studies flowing from my then rekindled faith.  And yes, you guess this wisely as well: my faith was rekindled in young adulthood largely in answer to the sorrows of my young adult life.

Ioannis Metaxas
Ioannis Metaxas
Another event I did not learn of as a boy was also recently celebrated: October 28, Επέτειος του «'Οχι», the Anniversay of the "No" or Όχι Day.  On October 28 some seventy-three years ago Prime Minister Metaxas refused Benito Mussolini's demand to allow Italian forces in Greek territory—Metaxas simply replied "No!" to the Italian envoy, or so the story goes—Italy immediately attacked, and Greece became a theater of the War.  It is a patriotic day, celebrated by Greeks the world around.  Well, except, it seems, in my childhood home.

(It struck me this year, although I had not thought of it last year, that the 28th takes on a double significance as an anniversary of the Όχι for me.  It was on that date last year that my Church and I were insulted, a thinly veiled ultimatum deeply pejorative to my character, contemptuous to my faith, and grievous to one whom I loved put right to my face, and my reply was "No."  As with the story of Metaxas, I would not expect you to understand that I actually said the word "No"—I did not—but my answer and its consequences were exactly as though I had.  The offense was laid before me, I refused, and the assault began.  When two different events, in this case one historic and the other private, coincide like that, I have to pause and allow myself a moment of wonder: even if, as now, it is a bitter kind of wonder.  Unlike my Greek forebears who successfully fought off that first Italian invasion, I and the one whom I loved were unable to repel last year's attack.)

As a young woman, my mother left Greece for a better life—of that I have no doubt—and her curious intellect and happy spirit, coupled with an impressive industriousness and tenacity, aided her well in that daunting task.  Most of the Greek immigrants I know came to America as married couples, but my mother went it alone, and she spoke once or twice of the loneliness she sometimes had to endure in taking on such a task.  Her strength and longsuffering carried her through to what she got, but then, after she had endured a good ways, what she got was not what she had wanted.  Of this last observation I also have no doubt, but I also know (although I should scarcely think that any of them are reading this) that some who knew her, her fair-weather friends, vague acquaintances, and kinfolk of varying qualities of character, would find my assessment too pessimistic.  To be sure, she found a better country.  She loved Greece, but Greece was more of a noble idea, her childhood memories, and the home to the family she left: the not so noble reality, however, was a place she did not want to live, and she readily said as much.  It was a wonderful place to visit.  If, by the way, you'd like to see a fine example of the kind of country she left and even at times could not easily return to for a visit, you may wish to see the excellent Costa-Gavras film Z, a story very plainly based on real events: as the movie's end title says, Any resemblance to actual events, to persons living or dead, is not the result of chance. It is DELIBERATE.  Yet still, in America, although she and her children surely benefited from the far greater opportunities, the actual events and persons my mother came to know, on the whole, didn't do her any favors either.  In compliment extern, indeed in her daily ways, even if not entirely within her heart, she lost a heritage, both religious and ethnic, and to what end?

Very rarely, but on those occasions with some passion, my mother talked about heritage, and it had a sadly legendary quality to it when she spoke.  I remember, for example, a time when a couple of elders from the Mormon religion, the most polite couple of young chaps from a crazy religion you could ever hope to meet, visited our home one afternoon.  My mother said to them in a way so maudlin that it made me uncomfortable that she could never convert, because her Orthodox faith was so dear to her.  Of course it is to her credit, albeit also to no surprise whatsoever, that she would not convert, but I wondered quietly within myself at that moment … well, I wondered why we hardly ever went to services and never talked about Orthodoxy in our home and in many ways lived like a bunch of pagans.  I think it gave my mother consolation to belong to the Orthodox tradition, and this is a very common phenomenon among religious folk, but she had a bit of the faith-that-feels-nice-but-doesn't-work-much happening there.  Any Orthodox should know, faith isn't just how you feel about something or what you admit or assent to.  It's a way of living.  She may have had that truer faith more in the years before I was around.  I can speculate with some intelligence about how her circumstances may have caused that to diminish substantially in the years before my birth, but the substance of those speculations would hardly be the business of anyone here, so I'll keep that for myself.

In any event, whatever she had back in the old days, it didn't survive very well.  Along with that loss—and I take these to be intimately and inextricably related—she never really quite got what she was hoping for in home, friends, family, progeny.  Goodness knows I was a loser (another charitable choice of words) well into my adult years, and I wasn't the only loser.  She had to find some way to manage the crummy deal she got in the New World, and, alas, what she chose or wound up with was not necessarily the most honest way.  It's the closest thing to a miracle I've witnessed that I'm devoutly Orthodox now.  I was baptized as an infant, thank goodness, but not long after I was pretty much on my own.  I've tried all of my mature Orthodox years, including of course the years since my mother's death, to understand the people and circumstances I've come from, τίμα τὸν πατέρα σου καὶ τὴν μητέρα, as the Good Book says,* and in some of these labors of mine I should ask, not unlike what I asked a moment ago of my mother's labors, at what cost?

When I was going by the handle Lasseter in my previous online journal, in one of the last essays that I wrote there I noted, much as I have here, that my young adult years were a bit misguided (charity again), and I wondered what my mother would think of the life her young son had led since her departure from this crummy world.  I think she'd be thrilled to pieces to see me practicing law—she'd probably have come to court to watch, at least the first time or two, if she'd lived to see the day.  I think also she'd be grieved sorely by other things.  In some areas, I think her counsel might have been useful, if she'd lived to witness certain events, and I don't mean useful to me: one or two others might have benefited from hearing an additional word from her, if she should in this hypothetical scenario have the proper honesty with both herself and those whom she counseled, and I know at least one soul who never met her who surely would have benefited from knowing her and hearing a word or two, even a word or two couched in a bit of polite or even short-sighted dishonesty.  She was a remarkable woman, that mother of mine, hard to read, to some extent by her own impressively subtle choice, and I have little doubt that of those still living I understand her better than any, but I still wonder, and it troubles me.

At her wake, a woman I've known all my life, the wife of a recently disgraced local politician and lawyer, chose to show up very shortly after the first of the day's two viewings of my mother's remains.  Her timing was quite deliberate.  She met me and a few others in the parking lot, and she and I went inside alone for a while.  We talked about some falling out that she and my mother had had, and she asked me also whether Mom and I had left any unfinished business between the two of us.  I told her no, even though I knew that the answer was yes.  I have since come to understand in ways whose details are also scarcely anybody's business here that the unfinished business was somewhat other than how I had understood it at the time of my mother's death.  The lady and I talked a bit about other things, she said some kind words about me and certain of my abilities, and I took them (and still do) to be a sincere compliment.  She paid her respects to her late friend.

I've seen neither hide nor hair of the woman since, but it's no great source of grief.  There's a photograph, probably somewhere in this house, of her husband with me and my mom back in, oh, the late seventies, right around the early days of his political career.  I look a bit confused in the picture; Mom and Attorney So-and-So look happy.  His work as both lawyer and politician have since been marred by his role in a local scandal, and he was convicted not too long ago of a crime of moral turpitude.  In his plea he told the court that he had been depressed and had contemplated suicide over his troubles.  I understand he may now have the opportunity for a reduced sentence on account of cooperation with authorities.  The execution of his sentence, you see, was deferred.

I played with that man's son when I was a boy and visited their home many times.  Years later my once playmate went on to marry a girl who, it happens, had lived down the street from me in childhood, although I have no memory of the two of them knowing each other when we were children.  She was a pleasant girl back in the day, and he was a happy boy, so I imagine them as a fairly nice couple, not that I've seen either of them in our adult years.  I knew the girl's brother back then a bit better than I knew her, crossed paths with him in the neighborhood from time to time as we played with vaguely mutual playmates.  In 1980 or '81, not long after my family had moved to the neighborhood, he once held a pair of garden shears to my neck at one of those mutual playmates' homes.  My chief memory of the boy.  I marveled at the time, as I do now, at how different brother and sister were.  He didn't mean any harm, by the way.  Although I found it unsettling, he held the blades to my neck in jest, a fact confirmed by his laughter after a moment of having let me feel terrified.  The kid was kind of crazy.

* * *

When I began this essay, well before the recent events and anniversaries that have since occupied my thoughts, I began it as follows, a few short paragraphs I intended to finish with more.  I leave them here as a post-script instead, exactly as I first wrote them.  Another year has gone by, this one far worse than any before it, and every hope of relief seems a foolish man's cruel and self-inflicted hoax.

I hate everyone.  No, I don't.  Well, I sort of do.  No, that's not true.

OK.  Let me try to explain.

I should begin (and therefore I now do) by saying that I do not fall into that venerable and largely self-congratulatory category of believers who think that it is inherently wrong to hate anyone.  I hear tell, mostly from hagiography, that there are some saintly few who do indeed love their neighbors as themselves and have as their neighbors at the least the whole of humanity.  They've got something to say about it too, these marvelous conversationalists who live in deserts and caves and on top of pillars, and some valiant few Orthodox maintain the record of their conversations in charming little quips and tales that have made for many a light word of harsh labors.  I myself do not belong to this saintly group, and I have never met anyone who does (most notably not among those who love to quote them), but I believe I can surmise well that such magnanimous folk must possess a patience with injury that I have only known in stories and surely do not have myself.

Just the same, I am not quick to hatred either.  When I artfully introduce the discourse by saying, "I hate everyone," what I mean is that I have come to see very little good where it counts in my affairs with my fellow man, but also—and this is the "No, I don't" part—that my sense of the wretchedness of people does not actually drive me to any degree of antipathy that would fairly be characterized as hate in the vast majority of cases.  Of course, there is no international scientific committee providing us with a precise standard of when distaste or aversion becomes abhorrence and abhorrence becomes hate, and indeed there is not even a precise scientific measure objectively dictating to us how just these terms I've chosen here represent degrees on a scale of dislike from, let's say, zero to burn-in-hell-for-all-eternity.  I imagine some who are reading this, for instance, may see abhorrence in the same category as hate, and over such a distinction I'll not quibble.  I have no grave stake in the matter.  Where my stake lies is this: I have a polite and perfectly manageable, which is to say not especially distracting, aversion to a good many people, but over all of my years I have only positively wished harm or fantasized about it upon a very few, and these few are those rare creatures who curse every life they touch and do so without remorse.  Some have gone to their reward already and not a moment too soon.  Others remain, and I scarcely know why, but Lord, let these remain as Thou wilt, but, when Thou dost let them depart, I'll not complain.

* Exodus 20:12, LXX, CATSS Rahlfs Septuaginta, accessed 5 November 2013, http://en.katabiblon.com/us/index.php?text=LXX&book=Ex&ch=20/.


  1. I have many thoughts after reading this (you cover many things, after all) but foremost is that this is a beautiful testament to your mother. Just lovely.

    1. Thank you, Irene. Since you are both a mother and a Greek (and recently wrote a very fine post about being those things), I take that as an especially kind comment.