Once Upon a Time I Sang

As a kid living in Nebraska for six of my life’s formative years, I met some refugees without fully understanding their stories or their situations. One of them was my piano teacher, Hans Baer, a refugee from Nazi Germany. He told as much of his story as he felt a 13 year old needed to hear, but in the past few years, through a really amazing series of events, I learned more. Through this blog, I was contacted by a German historian who was putting together a book of the stories of the Jewish musicians who fled Germany for Shanghai. I’d written about my piano teacher. The book was finished recently, MUSIKER UND MUSIKERINNEN IM SHANGHAIER EXIL 1938–1949 . The ultimate sweetness of THAT — for me — was that she attached her articles about my teacher and his wife. As I read them I was happy that I’d actually contributed a little something. He was a remarkable, unforgettable, inspiring man, and I was so lucky to have had him as a teacher, not only of piano but of life philosophy.

The other refugees I met during that time of my life came from Spain. Was one my 7th grade Spanish teacher, Dr. Espinosa, or Espinotha. The very school to which I rode the bus. 🙂 He was pretty adamant about that th sound. He organized our class one year to come to the Spanish/American Club in Omaha to sing Spanish Christmas songs.

Eight of us learned to sing some traditional Christmas carols in Spanish and a few South American songs. We had to dress up in grown up clothes. It was my first time in nylons. They felt creepy on my legs, like they were crawling around. It was pre-pantyhose and maybe I was wearing my mom’s girdle. We all went out in the very cold Nebraska December to sing to a group of old people from Spain. They were refugees from Franco’s regime about which I knew nothing.

Over the course of my teaching life I got to know refugees from all over the place and the stories carry one common thread — hope. My student from Somalia was walking across the campus with me one day and said, “Ah, my classmates. Everything bothers them. They just haven’t had to run away from bullets or watch their village burn.” He and his sister had fled their home, not knowing if their family would survive. Their mother had said, “Go!” and they ran. They did find their family and all of them refugeed to the US, but…

I’ve thought a lot about the role of hope in our lives. Hope is totally absurd. To take this absurdity forward into the dark and dangerous unknown, and sometimes with NOTHING else? “Well, what do I have to keep moving forward with? Shit. I got nothing. Necessity. Wait, I have this, too, this small and irrational thing, this tiny bird…

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –


And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –


I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.


Emily Dickinson

Hope keeps humans from sinking into the twin abysses of dread and loss. The irony of real hope — in contrast with “I hope Santa brings me a” or “I hope I get the winning lottery ticket” — is that when you need it, you probably don’t have anything else. I believe it’s an evolutionary strategy that kept our ancestors going forward when they had no reason to. “Tomorrow will be a better day.” Well, probably not, but it’s a lot easier to go to sleep if you think so. Hope fuels determination and will, powerful forces for change.

Back then, we sang this beautiful Chilean Christmas lullaby, “Arruru”. I don’t think we sounded like this. The melody is what we sang, but the words are a little different. I’ve pasted the “real” lyrics below.

ARRURU

Señora Doña María aquí le traigo a mi hijito
Señora Doña María aquí le traigo a mi hijito
Para que le meza la cuna cuando llora su niñito
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Bajando de las montanas allí vienen los pastores
Bajando de las montanas allí vienen los pastores
Para ver el nacimiento han sufrido los rigores
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Iluminado el camino la blanca estrella en Belén
Iluminado el camino la blanca estrella en Belén
Resplandece en el cielo sobre Jerusalén
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Loose translation: First verse; Here Mary brings her little son and lays him in a crib, she rocks the crib when he cries and sings, “Arruru, sleep little Jesus.” Second, The shepherds come down from the mountains. It’s a hard journey to see the birth. Third, Their way is lit by the white (bright) star over Bethlehem, lighting the sky over Jerusalem.

Afghanis, Islam and Making Skis in Boulder in the 70s

When I got out of college with a BA in English, I needed a job to support me and my then husband. We had to stay in Boulder because he had a year left of school. Hard to find a job there in 1974. I went to work at Head Ski. One night my supervisor asked me if I could give a co-worker a ride. She lived in town — as did I — and worked swing shift, as did I. No problem! From then on, I stopped every afternoon to pick her up and take her to work. We got along great and became close friends.

 —
I worked on the finishing line, skis, and I was a temporary employee. My co-worker was a permanent employee and she had a horrible job; she worked with the machines that cast the fiberglass into Head tennis rackets. Even though she wore a heavy apron and gloves well up to her elbows, the sticky fibrous dangerous crap of which those rackets are made still got on her clothes, so she wore old clothes that could be thrown away after a while.
 —
Her husband had no idea what his wife did. He came home shortly after she had already left for work and the babysitter was there. They had one little boy — two years old. One afternoon he came home early and saw his wife dressed for work. He was so sad and ashamed that they were so poor that his wife had to wear rags. He went out and bought her several yards of fabric so she could make pretty clothes for herself. From then on, when I picked her up (a little earlier) she was dressed to the nines in clothes she had sewn for herself with no pattern. We then went to 7-11 so she could change into the work clothes she left in my car.
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Right at Christmas, I got laid off (of course) but was rehired soon after to work in the mailroom, a permanent job for which I was deeply grateful. I brought home $500/month, about $2000 in today’s values. Of course Head Ski had a big employee Christmas party and my friend and her husband came with me and my husband. We had a good time and she wore a beautiful red dress she’d sewn for Christmas.
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A few years later, after I’d moved away from Boulder and they had moved to their native town, Russian tanks rolled through their city. I was terrified about what might have happened to them, but I never heard anything until the late 80s when I was in a restaurant in San Diego and the waiter — a man I’d known in Boulder — said, “I cannot believe to see you again. Did you hear what happened to Fahmia and Akbar?”
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I shook my head. I dreaded the answer.
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“The Russians they came and pulled them out of their beds — even little Omar! — and lined them up against their house and shot them.”
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I was devastated — but not surprised. Nothing more frightening to Soviet military conquerors than a USA educated architect and his little family.
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By the way, their hometown was Kabul.
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My life has brought many Muslim people to me from Muslim countries all over the world — from Egypt to Indonesia. Among the people I was closest to in the Peoples Republic of China were my Chinese Muslim students. One of them got me permission to visit the very old mosque in the center of Guangzhou by explaining to the girl guarding the gate that yes, my husband and I WERE Muslim because we were Christian and followed the law of Moses. If Ali’s logic had power in the world, we would have peace.
 ALL of them have known a great deal about Christianity and consider Christ to have been a holy man, a prophet, equal (get this!) to Mohammed. The difference between Islam and Christianity hinges on the question of whether Jesus was the (unique) son of God. Islam says, “We’re all sons of God, but some of us are chosen by God to help others find God.”
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But only God is God.
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During the 80s in San Diego, many Afghan refugees arrived. Some of them made their family’s living by selling at swap meets. It wasn’t a bad strategy. Since my husband at the time loved swap meets — and I like meeting people from other parts of the world — it worked out well. I would sometimes spend my time with a couple of Afghan men, sitting on a carpet that had been spread on the asphalt of a drive-in movie parking, eating grapes, drinking water and talking politics and history between watching them negotiate sales. One of these men was a university professor who’d lost his wife and children to the Russians. He asked me, “Do they teach you about Communism in school?” I answered yes, we learned about Marx, and he said, “No, no, that is beautiful, but I mean the real communism, where they drag you out of your bed and shoot you.” The other had been (of all things!) an Olympic prize fighter!
 —
He and his family got to be our good friends, and one night we went to their house for supper so I could do my “Haj.” It’s crazy, but this man had been in Mecca the year before to do his Haj and he had a video that was for people who could not go to Mecca and do this important pilgrimage. “You can do TV Haj,” he said to me.
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I first learned of the Haj during my days of fascination with T.E. Lawrence (pre-teen years) and I always thought there was something beautiful about hinging a life on a pilgrimage like that. I have since decided that’s a timeless universal thing, to suspend ordinary life for a time and go on what really amounts to a ridiculous journey. The fact that it IS ridiculous is its beauty, the surrendering of self to the road and the symbol. It’s grand.
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So, for several hours I watched the Haj and Mohammed Ali Kabiri’s wife cooked dumplings. She was a brilliant woman, a scientist, and I think she thought her husband was pretty funny (it had been an arranged marriage) but also very lovable. Mohammed left the swap meet game and got into the more dependable occupation of driving a cab. Their two children now have advanced university degrees.
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It might be human nature to hate or fear what we do not know, but should not our better angels tell us to learn about what we do not know? I think that’s something to be ashamed of, being governed by fear is not courage. Calling ignorance knowledge is dishonesty. I agree there are elements of some Islamic cultures that I don’t like that much, but at least I can say that I’ve known Saudi women and have some idea of how they view their world; some like their traditional role, some do not. Is that any different from American women?
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It seems to me that the whole point is that we are already living together on this planet. That is a fact. The vast majority of human beings on this planet are doing pretty well most of the time living together. Our interactions are NOT with entire populations, but with individuals. I have yet to meet a person who was not affected positively by sincerity, kindness and good-faith. I have also never met a person who did not have the ability to convey those things. I believe that life is not easy for anyone. I don’t know anyone who has not suffered something terrible — cancer, the death of children, loss of a spouse, siblings; many have experienced the tragedies linked to war, many have survived the devastating loss of property. Many of us have had to rebuild our lives more than once. We need each other and most humans derive pleasure from helping one another.