Auschwitz: The Art of Remembering

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I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time, ever since I got back from Poland a month ago.

How do you write about Auschwitz?

How do you write about a place imbued with so much infamy, pain, and unreality?

My visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was not my first trip to tragic sites of WWII.

I have stood in the shadow of the A-Bomb dome in Hiroshima and only days later gazed upon the beautiful crystal waters of Pearl Harbor. I have ridden through Los Alamos and contemplated the path the bombs took to the place I had visited years ago.

But Auschwitz is different.

Auschwitz represents a tyranny so unbelievable, that when you find yourself standing in the gravel-covered pathways, or making your way through the echoing halls of the blocks, you cannot quite believe what happened on the very ground you stand on.

Tour groups flock to the most grisly sites on the camp: the “Wall of Death”, the camp prison, and you see the odd person taking a selfie or smiling under the front gate. But if you delve into one of the smaller museum blocks or walk to the far end of the camp near the now-defunct electric fences, you can feel the chill.

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Remembering is an art.

We want to believe we remember, and that in remembering, we can prevent genocide and tragedy, and unspeakable acts of people who looked into another human being’s eyes and decided to impart more evil on the world anyway.

We want to believe we can remember enough from just the books and stories we hear.

But walking through the crematoriums, seeing the peaceful groves of trees surrounding Birkenau, where doomed victims awaited the gas chambers, actually feeling the weight of what transpired–that is a whole different kind of remembering. And the art of remembering might be our only chance.

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Don’t shy away. Remember.

Indian Food in Poland & Other Stories

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There are some things in life you just don’t do. Walk around in golf ball-sized hail. Eat Indian food in Poland.

Of course, some people still do stupid things, and mine did not seem stupid at the time. The Indian restaurant had been a favorite of my friends’, and we went on Easter, when very little was open. Alas, it was a mistake.

The lassi was my downfall.

The food poisoning I experienced over the next 24 hours was unpleasant, and afflicted only me, and I’m grateful I didn’t lose more of the trip to it.

Now, let’s talk about how marvelous the rest of the food was. I am ashamed of the number of food photos I took on this trip.

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Our spoils from the market.

Do you see that beautiful bacon? That bacon was good enough to deserve the reputation regular bacon has in this country. It deserved to be revered. And everything was so cheap.

Apples $1 a kilo. Cheese about $2-3 a pound. Ham & bacon about $5 a pound.

Pierogi are one of the best inventions of man, and I ate as many of them as I could handle. I think I need to learn to make them next…

And finally, food of the drunks: Zapiekanka.

Behold:

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This is about $1 worth of food, and 100% amazing.

Food, I still love you, and I’m willing to overlook the lassi betrayal.

Adding the Pieces Back In

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Over the last few years, the term “adulting” has been popularized within my generation. It’s basically a term that is used to show off an “adult” accomplishment like paying bills on time or starting a 401(k). I’m no sociologist, but I’m guessing that much of the phenomenon stems from the ease of sharing we now have combined with the fact that the world is changing and it’s pretty hard to fit everything we have to do into the time that we have. It can seem impossible when you’re starting out just to simply keep your life together.

So how do you make meaningful changes in your life? How do you improve yourself when you’re just trying to make it to work, feed yourself, and maintain your relationships?

It’s true that you can’t just change your life all at once, no matter what your demographic. You can’t start on January first with a huge list of everything you’re going to achieve and do better in the new year. You can’t even do that if you lay out small, manageable goals for each change—or at least you can’t if you’re me (or most people). We can’t be perfect, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years since I moved 3000 miles away from my home and family, it’s that it takes time to add all the pieces back in for a healthy and fulfilling life.

I’ve always been a perfectionist, with one main motivation: you’re just not good enough. That’s been a driving factor in everything I do well—but also the things I never try or just never finish. I’m one of those people who starts projects with gusto, then loses interest, or becomes fearful, lazy, or a combination. The exception to this is generally a deadline, or something else to hold me accountable.

I admire people who finish things.

In other ways, I look at my own life and marvel how I have had the ability to make not just a functional life for myself, but a resoundingly stable, happy, and meaningful life. A few years ago, when everything I had known got shaken up, it was all I could do to just find myself a home, feed myself, and get to work each day. Today, I have a wonderful circle of friends, a healthy relationship, a home that I love, a new business I’m starting, and a rock solid backbone that makes me pretty damn stable despite challenges that come my way. My sense of self has developed to the point where most days, I’m proud to be who I am, and I’m not going to change that for validation.

But there’s always something missing. It’s just part of my personality: I like independence, I like variety, I like feeling the metaphorical wind on my face. And that’s how I learned that it’s not just as simple as making the resolve to change what you don’t like about yourself and your life. It’s a gradual process.

That missing piece is what pushes me to add more meaning to my life, bit by bit. Here are some things I’ve learned that I remember to help me make changes possible in my own life:

  • I am only one person
  • I have accepted the fact that I do need 8 hours of sleep per night, at minimum
  • I feel better when I move, but I don’t do it enough
  • Feeling unaccomplished or like a fraud are my biggest motivators
  • I will keep searching for new opportunities at happiness, no matter how scary
  • Prioritization, deadlines, and accountability make things happen

For me, the next pieces to add back in are running (now that I’ve finished PT for a knee injury), and of course, getting back to my own writing. What are yours?

On Snobbery & Literature

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snob

noun \ˈsnäb\

: someone who tends to criticize, reject, or ignore people who come from a lower social class, have less education, etc. (Merriam-Webster)

Snobbery is a fact of culture, and we’re all guilty of it in one way or another. While some people tend to be snobby in general, there are also many specific ways snobbery can reveal itself, even if we don’t think about these actions as directly snobby.

I think as an English major (current or former), you’re exposed to more than your fair share of snobbery in some respects. “Oh, you haven’t read ______? But it’s a classic!”

No, I have not read all that many classics. But that doesn’t make me less of an English major, less of a reader, less of a lover of words than someone who has made it through countless odious tomes of dubious quality just because they are “classics”.

I try to be conscious of the things I am snobby about, and I am aware of the same in the people I love. My mother openly admits to being an intelligence snob; my roommate and friend is a food snob, and I am a dog ownership snob.

Being snobby about specific things I think tends to correlate how much something means to you and how much you care about the quality of the product or idea. And while these are not negative ideas per se, it is important to remember that being snobby does not help anyone see the value in what you are discussing in the same way that you do.

I think many people are guilty of snobbery in literature, and it both helps and hurts us all as writers, readers, and artists. Feeling like something is important for its cultural value helps us push our boundaries and explore new ideas, but valuing a type of literature over another de-values some truly great works. Gimmicky cover design does the same.

Even bookstores are snobby, whether they are digital or physical. Separating the “Literature” from the Sci-Fi, Romance, Mystery, and others subtly dismisses certain works before they even come off the shelf. “Chick Lit”, typically written for women by women is often dismissed as a lesser, despite the fact that many excellent writers tackle similar themes to what can be found in the “Literature” section. Snobbery and sexism all at once.

So where do we go from that? How do we fairly evaluate books on a level playing field without letting our preconceived cultural perceptions get in the way? How can we be proud of what we like without feeling the need for the approval of others on our own tastes? How can we acknowledge that something we find to be irritating or of low quality speaks to someone else in a different way?

With all that said, I will not back down on being snobby about Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. Some things, I just can’t change about myself.

The Worry List

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I don’t like clutter. My childhood room would tell a different tale, but these days I can’t work or focus when there’s clutter in my space. My mind works the same way. When I can’t sleep, it’s because so many thoughts are crashing around my head, competing for space. It’s like I need to think about them all at once or they’ll slip away. And for some reason, that’s terrifying.

I’m not the only one in my family who gets worried and anxious easily. I can trace it back quite easily, and as problems go, there are worse ones to have, I suppose. But the same thing that makes me hyper-responsible can also be my worst enemy; it can make me so overwhelmed that I can’t focus on anything fully, and everything begins to take far longer than it should.

It is in these moments that I find comfort in listmaking.

There is something about writing everything down that just makes dealing with the anxiety more manageable. In those moments when I am paralyzed by the incessant, clanging noise of thoughts, I reach for a piece of paper, most often a notecard. And I write out another worry list.

My worry lists are nothing more than spaces for me to keep my thoughts so I don’t lose track of them. It becomes a combination of the things I need to do, the things I do not have time for, the things I want to do, and the worries that are not actions, but feelings. I write them all down, together, and until I have a handle on things, it is a sort of anchor for myself, a reality check. It is not only a reminder of the things that I think, but a reminder of how special writing is; this tool we have to capture memories and emotions and tasks without them getting lost or distorted with time.

Unlike my other lists, the worry list is rarely used, but of utmost importance.

The odd thing is that in the space and time of de-cluttering my mind is often when I get the most inspiration. It probably has to do with the act of simply writing things down—an act I neglect far too often, when the words that I write to help keep a roof over my head swallow anything else I might produce and keep me from calling myself a fiction writer. But that too, probably, is an excuse. Maybe it’s time to stop getting swallowed.