Oma’s Stories, And What I Don’t Think of Them

Oma, my maternal grandmother, during our weeklong visit this month. She is a goofball.

I thought I knew Oma’s stories. Back in middle and high school, when we were tasked with writing oral histories or interviewing elders, Oma was my go-to source. Growing up poor in Vienna. Marrying a camp-surviving Jewish man 20 years her senior, after the war. Emigrating in 1949 on a refugee boat and landing in New Orleans on Labor Day, only to wait another day on the ship because all the dock workers were on holiday. Being overawed at the opulence of Safeway on her first US grocery shopping trip. Discovering with horror that the racism she thought she had escaped was still being visited here on Blacks and “foreigners.” Even in America.

This story never made it into my school reports, though. I don’t remember when she started telling it (meaning, most likely, at what age she felt I was old enough to hear it). But now she repeats it on every visit. (What a perfect jigsaw-fit for aging: losing her short-term memory while vividly recalling her childhood. The ‘intelligent design’ of transmitting elder wisdom, huh?)

It goes like this.

*Trigger warning: rape, war, threatening with weapons, and vicarious trauma.*

After the Russians liberated Vienna from the Nazis, the Russian soldiers remained in the city. Looting and raping. One night, pre-teen Oma and her mother (divorced, single), heard a knock on their door. Mother approached and tried to turn the visitor away. But the soldier outside demanded to be let in, or he would break down the door and kill whoever was inside.

Quickly, Oma ran and hid in a closet, while Mother admitted the armed man. Since she spoke Czech, they found some common Slavic lingual ground. He wanted a meal and a nap. Mother fixed him something, and then invited him to lie down.

“You should lie down, too,” he ordered.

She indicated that he should take the bedroom, where there were two cots, and she would nap in the living room.

He refused, insisting that she take the second cot.

Removing his pants, he got under the covers, while she went to bed fully dressed, shaking with terror.

Soon enough, of course, he approached her and wanted to rape her.

“Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” she pleaded. “I have syphilis!” (A lie.) “You shouldn’t touch me!”

It didn’t matter, said the soldier. He had it, too.

Now Mother fell to her knees on the floor and started praying to God.

And this [here Oma always gives a gentle but pointed look, raising her finger for emphasis] touched something in the soldier. Something deep down in his upbringing. Delivering a kick to Mother, he took his gun and left.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of this story of Oma’s. Maybe because it seems so simplistic, advising me to believe in God because a prayer spared her mother from being raped. Personally, I don’t think that God exists in that way: a separate, higher entity who grants us wishes and protects us from harm.

But it was this fundamental non-sense, my inability to draw a palatable lesson from a story that clearly meant so much to my grandmother, that left me open to seeing the story totally differently.

In high school, when I recorded Oma’s recollections, I tried to draw conclusions about them. Morals. Lessons. Social commentary. Even though our opinions truly do coincide on many things (poor people work just as hard as rich people, or harder; everyone deserves the basics for a good life; intolerance and bigotry are highly dangerous), I think I tried to make her stories “say something” politically — about the potentials for solidarity among the marginalized; about the power of kindness and resilience; about organic, intuitive feminism. I tried to make them fit my own opinions.

And as a really excellent article by Zen teacher Lin Jensen reminded me yesterday morning, this is a very common tendency. “Rushing to judgment,” or bending reality to fit our own preconceptions of right and wrong.

For those of us committed to political liberation and justice, we spend so much time and energy analyzing experience and information through a right/wrong filter that it can be difficult or impossible to switch that filter off. It may be true that everything is political, in the sense that our every experience is mediated by large-scale social structures and power differentials that are, at their core, deeply unfair and dehumanizing. But. As Jensen points out, living exclusively in this mode of analysis can actually block our connection to the ultimate source of ethical conduct: our own heart-ful experience.

Zen ethical principles, like all systems of ethics, are derived from an exhaustive observation of life and are a synthesis of painstaking induction. So where does the critical difference lie between Zen ethics and other traditional ethical systems? It lies in the way a Zen Buddhist works with ethical principles. For the Zen Buddhist, an ethical precept is a question to be held up to the light of circumstance, an inquiry rather than an answer. And the nature of this inquiry is not so much the dubious enterprise of trying to figure out the right thing to do as it is an offering of an unaided heart. After all, it’s from this heart of ours that the precepts themselves once arose. At the threshold of choice, the Zen Buddhist trusts this ancient heart above all other authority. It’s not that the Zen Buddhist reinvents the ethical wheel every time he faces a new situation; it’s just that he goes back to the source itself. Ethics is not an invention but an expression of the heart’s core. What’s most needed in the moment of choice is an empty hand.

I’ll admit, for an unpoetical mind like mine, notions like “trusting the ancient heart” don’t immediately sit well. What does it mean? How do I do it? How do I know if I’m doing it right? And isn’t it a perfect catch-all justification for some creepy guru power-monger to go ahead and do whatever the hell he wants?

“It’s cool, everyone. The ancient heart gave me the green light.”

At the same time, despite the skepticism, my own experience tells me there is something to this. My sense of what is right to do in a moment often seems to draw on sources larger or greater than my own logical schemes. And even though the results might seem to line up with traditional articulations of ethics (I have a very hard time lying or deceiving people, for instance — especially my parents), the process that leads me there is quite different from a by-the-book approach.

Maybe it’s the reader in me. The reader that loves the un-integrated details. Jensen puts it this way:

While a Zen Buddhist may cherish and recite her preceptual vows each day of her life, she nonetheless learns to keep her ear to the ground, listening to her own living spring and trusting that above all else. She receives the waters unwittingly, the living spring flowing into her from all sides—the scrape of shoes on the city street, the studied precision of the cook cleaning the kitchen counter, the girl swinging her hair with a twist of her neck, the guard with his feet planted, an old woman’s cough heard from an adjacent room, a hand nervously clenching and opening, the tone a voice takes, a hesitation in mid-sentence, a child snatching at a pebble sunk in the creek. She doesn’t accumulate these bits and facts of life like evidence on which to base a judgment. She doesn’t accumulate anything at all, nor does she form an impression of what she sees and hears. She lets the waters enter her body like sap rising from roots. She trusts that the limbs will grow in their own way and that the leaves will unfold in time.

It is sometimes difficult for me to understand which parts of living require rigor and discipline, and which call for radical letting go, non-doing, and receptiveness. But it’s a fun and fruitful tension to live with, too.

So for now I’ll ease off on drawing conclusions from Oma’s stories. The stories themselves, and the knotty human conflict between her desire to share them and her deep wish to forget, are enough.

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