Thursday, June 2, 2011

Auschwitz, Optimism. Merci, Mercy.

Optimism. Not my natural inclination, but something I’m being encouraged to practice these days. Grasp its tiny glimmers. Seize hold of its whispers with ferocity and don’t let go. Or, if that doesn’t work, AA offers a bounty of catchy slogans: act “as if,” fake it ‘til I make it. (Alternately, bake it—as in, a dozen cupcakes and I can pretend I might eat one, might lick a fingerful of chocolate frosting, might let a few rainbow sprinkles dissolve on my tongue).

There I go again. A decidedly unoptimistic tone. Retreating to know-it-all irony. Who me have genuine hope for myself? AA tells me to pray every day to a Higher Power. All I can manage to squawk out in the morning (not aloud, of course, still too self-conscious for that) is, “I’m awake and not hungover, not dead, not freshly cut, not hospitalized. Thus, intact for the moment. Merci, mercy;” and at night, while tossing and turning my way to sleep, is, “I’m still awake, and miraculously still intact. Merci for my family and friends and for AA and my ubermensch psychiatrist. Mercy, please, and let me sleep?”

Oh, just effing stop it, Kerry. Stop pretending that you don’t care, that you are impermeable, impervious, that your insides aren’t stitched together with sadness and loneliness and fear.

Optimism. A few years ago, my family moved to Romania for several months. My husband received a Fulbright fellowship. It was supposed to be a great adventure. Bucharest or Bust. Exactly how good a liar was I to pull off that bit of manipulative convincing that I was well enough to go at 109 pounds, purging the little I did eat, chomping down lithium and sleeping meds and still wildly unstable? But away I went because surely isolation in a post-Communist, graffitied, stray-dog pack laden, gypsy-haunted city would save me from myself.

But we took advantage of our proximity to other European destinations and traveled. Greece, Italy, Poland. A friend who lived in Krakow helped us find babysitting services, so Christopher and I day-tripped to Auschwitz. Day-tripped. Clearly the wrong word. Too jaunty. Too blithe since most who went there never left.

What I remember:

Outside the entrance gates, concession stands selling jumbo sodas and foot-long sausages in buns. Crass doesn’t even come close.

The entrance sign hanging over the gates: Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes One Free).

Rooms inside the barracks filled with different accumulated objects: Shoes. A stray red shoe. Suitcases. Artificial limbs and crutches. Piles and piles of miniature bales of hair. Or coils of braided hair. Eyeglasses and brushes. Moth-eaten baby sweaters. Jewish prayer shawls.

The small, roadside restaurant we stopped in afterwards for lunch. On our table: pierogies, meat stew, cabbage rolls, very tall, cold draft beers. I drank my beer very quickly, ate sparingly, then went to the bathroom and threw up. Not out of some dramatic, misplaced survivor’s guilt. But because I was in the stupid, pathetic throes of a common eating disorder. Believe me, the revolting irony of it was not lost on me—I was wretching into the toilet, while all those millions of people starved to death, were exterminated. I had the vain luxury to choose to throw up my lunch, to choose to throw up my life.

Okay. So I can choose to wallow in guilt and shame here. Or I can learn my lesson. Because there is another story to learn from this. A story already published. In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin, a cookbook patched together from the memories of female prisoners at Terezin, a way station to Auschwitz. They wrote down their recipes for chocolate torte, plum strudel, roast goose—all the while surviving on potato peels—not because they believed they would ever cook these dishes again, but because they believed somehow, against reason, future generations might be able to claim their inheritance, find a way to cook their grandmother’s kugel. An insane, improbable, one might even say, delusional optimism.

With this before me as an exemplum, I retract all irony, all cynicism. I think I can manage “as if.” As if it will cost me all that much, anyway.

One more thought on optimism. Today, my daughter and I were driving to the Humane Society. She’s started to volunteer to help out with the animals—and since she’s only eight, she needs to be accompanied by an adult. And since I need to repair some of the damage my absence has wrought these past months, I’ve decided I’ll help her. So we’re driving to the shelter today, the first day of volunteering, and Sophia says, “I’m so excited.” Her voice is squeaky-happy. “I’m so excited that my tummy is doing flip-flops. Why would it be doing that if I'm happy?”

“That’s called anticipation,” I said.

“What’s anticipation?” she says.

“It’s like you’re so excited because you’re looking forward to something that your insides get all wiggly and squiggly.”

“That’s exactly it.”

And I realized that is exactly it. Exactly how I feel these days before I go to my AA meetings. Before I walk into my Partial Hospitalization group sessions. Before I meet with my psychiatrist. Before I tumble into bed to snuggle with my kids each night. Anticipatory excitement. Otherwise known as optimism. Merci. Mercy. Thank you.