Growing a Heart of Wisdom part 2: Calling the Names

November 16, 2010 By: Sherry Ruth Anderson Category: Aging With Grace and Glory, Sherry Anderson

Settling into my window seat on a short flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, I end up deep in conversation with a man in horn rims sitting next to me. I’d intended to hide behind the pages of the Herald Tribune but couldn’t resist his open, almost eager face. He’s Greek, he told me, a music professor fresh from teaching in Brooklyn and on his way to Frankfurt to learn how to conduct an orchestra. He tells me his name, Nichos something, and asks for mine. Sherry, I say.  

“What about your last name,” he asks. “I am very interested in names. I make a kind of study of them.”

I tell him that my last name doesn’t mean anything to me. My parents changed our name when I was twelve. I think they wanted something that sounded more American.

“Same with me,” he says, “no link either. My father changed our name when he lived in Austria so he would fit in better, wouldn’t sound so Greek.”

In the way of strangers who tell each other intimate things, I find myself talking to Nichos about the list of names I read last month on a wall in Dubrovnik. “I was wandering through an old synagogue,” I tell him, “wondering where everyone had gone. Then I walked downstairs and found a scroll with names.”

I describe how two vines covered with thorns curled down the scroll, and at the bottom, under the dates 1941-1944, a small sign read, Died in the Holocaust. I don’t tell him how I couldn’t stop crying. But because he leans forward to hear my words over the plane’s roar and his eyes are kind, I say that I wanted to read the names out loud, to recite them like a prayer or a blessing.
I don’t mention that last part about the prayer either. I’m trying to monitor the intimacy a little, not just blurt out my whole inner process to a guy I don’t even know.

“Names are important,” he says. “Sometimes I go to old cemeteries when I’m in Greece to recite the names carved into the headstones.”

I like to go to cemeteries too. I’ve been doing it since my thirties when I started to notice the intense chatter in my mind and long for silence. And if the cemetery is Jewish and no one is around, I chant prayers for the ancestors, a bit like Nichos reciting the names. It just feels companionable, but not something I want to discuss with a stranger at 60,000 feet. There seems to be nothing left to say so I turn to gazing out at the vast fields of clouds.

“Sometimes names have to be hidden.”

Nichos says this easily, breaking the silence as if we’d continued talking all the while. And then he tells me a story that he heard from his mother when he was a small boy in Delphi.

The story is about the island of Zakynthos at the time of the Nazi occupation in 1943. “Almost as soon as the army marched onto the island,” he told me, “the commander demanded a list of all the Jews living on the island.”

“That’s what happened in Dubrovnik, too,” I say. “The Nazis were obsessed with sending Jews to the death camps in Poland.”
“Yes, but in this case the Mayor said he’d need several days to put a list together. In the meantime, he and the Bishop sent word to the people of the island and within days, all 275 Jews were safely hidden in rural mountain villages. And every one of them survived the occupation.”

“But what about the Nazi commandant?  He must have insisted on getting that list of names.”

“Oh yes. The Mayor and the Bishop got together on that. They handed the list over to the commandant a week later. It had only two names on it— Mayor Lucas Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos.”

*     *     *

It’s been about a month now and Nichos’ story, together with the list of names I saw in the Dubrovnik synagogue, seem to have formed themselves into koan that won’t go away.
I’m not even sure of the question, except that there is something haunting about Nichos reciting the names on headstones and his story about Zakynthos and my wanting to chant the names on the scroll as if they were words in a prayer. There seems to be something I need to engage with that I keep passing over, something about calling the names.

I have what I suppose you could call a clue. It’s a photograph I took on the day I left Dubrovnik, on a quick trip I made to the Old City to take another look at the scroll. When I got to the synagogue, I felt an almost irresistible impulse to pull the scroll off the wall, bundle it up in velvet wrappings and run with it out the door and into the street, clutching it to my chest as if it were a sacred Torah and I were its rescuer. Fortunately, some shred of sanity prevailed and I rummaged through my backpack for my cell phone and merely snapped a (forbidden) photo. Then, a little shaken, I hurried down the stairs into the Adriatic sunshine to pick up Paul and catch a cab to the airport.

Once I got home, I kept bringing the photo up on my computer screen to peer at it, as if it held some answer to the question I didn’t know how to ask. Last week I started to wonder about the Hebrew writing on either side of the scroll. It looked like it must be from Torah passages. Yesterday I emailed my nephew, a rabbi in L.A., to find out.

“The Hebrew is just the names on the scroll written out and placed as if they were in a Torah to give them more sanctity,” he wrote back. “Hope that is helpful.”

Oh. I blew up the photo on the computer screen and looked at it more closely. And then slowly, without thinking about it, I began sounding out the Hebrew letters one by one, the names stumbling out with my halting pronunciation, the way I read prayers as a child. I never learned to read smoothly without the vowel markings, so as I read the names from the Hebrew letters, I had to go back and forth to the Latin alphabet to get them right. I did this stubbornly, wanting the feel the names in my mouth taking their form out of the Hebrew letters: Salamon Baruh.  Mosi Tolentino.  Rafael Tolentino. Josef Berner…  I called the names of the ones who were taken away.

Depth charges seemed to be setting themselves off inside my body like distant resonating links beyond time and space.

Names as prayers. Names as blessings. Saying the names from a sanctity seemed to be opening the koan that had lodged itself inside me.

I remembered how, in the Zen Center where I lived for several years, we would wake every morning to the sound of the great iron bell and file into the dharma room to call the names of our teacher and his teacher through our lineage of awakened masters tracing our connection back to the Buddha. A rabbi I know, Leah Novick, does this in her own way. She recites the names of the women who have guided and loved her, beginning with her own mother and grandmothers, and continuing on in a great circle of interconnection to her aunties and friends and her own teachers throughout her lifetime.

Joanna Macy, the Buddhist teacher and activist, calls the names of her lineage like this: Horned Owl, Grey Wolf, Seal, Raccoon, Tiger, Great Sequoia. She does this not only as an affirmation of the web of life, she says, but to o so she can bear to feel her grief and her love for the ones who have disappeared from the Earth and so she can find the courage to speak out for the sake of the children yet to come.

As I approach 70, I want to join those resonating links of connection. I want to take my place as a lineage carrier, calling the names on the Dubrovnik scroll, and those of the Mayor and the Bishop of Zakynthos and the names they kept secret and remembering all those who hid their names or changed their names and all those women whose names have been forgotten. I want those names not just to resonate but to reverberate so that their sounds do not end abruptly. I want them to continue, to reach beyond the boundaries of time to the unlimited, the unbounded, ringing through the world we have now into the world to come and the limitless mystery that is our true name.

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2 Comments to “Growing a Heart of Wisdom part 2: Calling the Names”


  1. Roger Desmarais says:

    Hi, Sherry,

    Absolutely moving! It touched a place in my heart that was touched earlier toy by a PBS documentary on the American Indian’s philosophy of life. Everything has a spirit and it is named in the words of definition from wolf to wind, rain to sea, mountain to river. That the Great Spirit provided an opportunity for a gathering of free spirits to inhabit what had been created and the spirits chose where they intended to go in order to help enhance the world. I, having lived on the farm and the seasonal progression, am moved by the reality of the spirit world and the forms inhabited. Your words allowed me to trace my own lineage back through my family and the earth world: an integration of your tracings and my nature and family tracings – and they all seemed to be part of the total in such a way that I am inhabited with the wisdom of lineage. I do not know what that means – but it resonates with your words. Thank you – and more to come.

    Love,

    Roger

    I am moved to share the introduction to my book on “Disruptive Poetry – Upsetting the Perfect Corporate Status Quo” – a way of letting yo know me.

    NATURE AS ESSENTIAL – Roger Desmarais

    My essential language, growing up on a farm, was with the earth. Running my hands through the seasons was connection with a primordial language that had no syntax – only feelings of integration at an umbilical level that was below cognitive perception. I worked the fields as they worked me, slowly, in the sun, speaking to me of rhythm and growth, life and fruition, tasting time in the shadows on the ground, thrown by a sun that sensed my need to touch its face and understand. Divinity for me was universal, an essential essence that broke – even then – old concepts of God, yet, understood, at a most profound level, the truth of individuality sharing the same primitive fundamental source of life energy as our nature refracted into individuals – all of whom were part of a quiet universe micronized into each day, in the fields, sweating in rhyme with the sap rising in the vines, keeping time with my own gestation into the next phase of ‘sweating’ – a most fundamental ‘humus’ existential understanding of the concept of the trinity.

    I experienced in the fields, under the sun, the beauty of a conversation that eclipsed words, refused to be constrained by grammar, transcended the fragility of words – yet was as clear as the water that cooled my body for the next round of sweating. There was a wholesomeness that was – before its time – holistic, in tune and in touch with the totality of my essential self that floated down the rows and between the vines, not knowing at times who I was – only felt in the sweating that provided parameters to that self yet was a conduit to the other side of the sweating – the side that touched divinity in the dust and knew, deep outside, what life was about deep inside.

    Alone-ness, then, was not isolation in an empty field but an alone-ness that was full of the essential elements of that outer world – dust, dirt, water, sun, heat – that spoke to the inner soul of love, nurturing, carefulness, tenderness, compassion – the pain of experiencing a bursting of unfocused love that sprang from a deep spot within, warmed the heart in its flow upward, blasting forth quietly into a world of soft acceptance that knew only recognition of itself, manifested particularly, in this moment from my discriminated self. Never lonely in the aloneness, my pulse pounded on in a musical beat that vibrated in harmony with the hum in the universe, in collusion with the interface of neurons within molecules, hurtling through their inner space to continue to create the ‘me’ that contained the humming. I was alive in the humming and in dialogue with a primitive world that – it seemed – only I knew and understood, never mentioned to others because the secret was too precious to speak through limiting words into a field of illiteracy.

    My life has traversed the hillsides and mountains of the world and seems to be coming to rest back in the fields of my youth, where simplicity was in the doing, and being was simply being there, open and bare to the impressionism of nature, speaking in its quiet voice – sometimes through the natural violence of its storms and the thrashing of its rains – of an essential living that was not changed by the observer because there was no “I” in ‘observing’. Nothing was ‘in the eye of the beholder’ because there was no aware beholder. It was just an unknown absolute integration of all discriminated pieces into a one nature, the ultimate size that fits all.

    When I breathe the cold morning air or feel the warm sultry breeze of an evening, I am vaulted back through reverse osmosis, back to a time – or fast-forwarded into the present – when everything was everything, and one was one. There is an intense quiet and peacefulness associated with nothing. I love the fields of my life where the sweat of living is the reality check on perceptions of what life might be in another place. I am still a farm boy farming the nature of my life.

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  2. Emma L.Hummelen says:

    Dear Sherry.
     I was  deeply touched by your story about the murdered jews of Dubrovnik and your recitation of their names .
    It made me think of something that took place in Amsterdam, where I live almost 6 years ago- January 2005, during the 60th anniversary and commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz: 100.000 jews (of a total of 120.000 jews who lived there in before the war) were deported and “did not come back” as the euphemism says. It was during those days that all these 100,000 names were recited here in Amsterdam ,the names and birth dates of all those who never came back from the camps, among which my grandmother. It took 2 days and 2 nights! NON STOP!
    By doing that the abstract lists of names became people, got a face, and became somehow “alive” :todlers, girls, boys, old grandfathers and -mothers, babies, teens, students, mothers, fathers, spouses, babies. It was DEEPLY moving. I could not speak about it but afterwards I fell mysteriously ill with a extremely high fever-:40  degrees.( the highest fever I have ever had!). It was as if the unspeakable got spoken finally.
    One remark :This total devastation of a community and the related fears of existence and wounds who survived it are so deep that “mourning” in a normal way is just impossible for those who were affected and their children. This was just too big for any individual consciousness to hold and so the wounds and scars are carried on through the generations: dor-wa-dor , from generation to generation (till the 7e generation as the Torah says)…. Therefore I think that it may be easier for a relative “outsider” to mourn these events then for the insider of the community itself, which is just too devasted. People had to go on with life, had to continue and in that way had to cope ,not being able to digest. And so transgenerationally they carry the trauma on to the next generation, and it was only this summer that another deeper layer of this tragedy that impacted my family revealed itself to me: I had never been able to feel anger about what had happend! In other words: mourning and digesting continue to take place – 65 years later and more to come.

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