Living Life Well: An agony & resolve no longer distant
By Jim Shere
I heard her riding up, her dog running happily alongside her horse. I was shirtless, barefoot, and in my sixteenth year, splitting firewood down near the eucalyptus grove. School was out, and the summer was my own. When I turned, I saw the pretty little blonde I had watched as she hurried through the high school hallways, clutching her books to herself on the way to class.
And here she was, stunning in her blue gym shorts and crisp white blouse, and agile as she slipped down from her horse. I didn’t notice at the time how her bright smile somehow didn’t match a look in her eyes that suggested something else — something more resolved, and somber. I did notice her accent though, the intriguing way her voice sounded as she told me to call her Dixie, because her real name would be too difficult for me to pronounce. “Anyway,” she said, “it doesn’t matter, I’m called Dixie now.”
She had ridden the mile from her father’s farm to see our horse, so I brought her down to the pasture Old Ben shared with the cows and donkeys. I showed her the rest of our farm, too — the gardens, the berry patch and cherry orchard, and finally the newborn kittens in the barn. That was the horrible moment when her dog caught one of the kittens up in his jaws and ran off, leaving her stammering pointless apologies while jumping back on her horse and galloping after him, crying out.
A few days later an envelope arrived addressed to me in her handwriting, with a crumpled dollar bill in it. I was outraged that she could believe a simple dollar bill would compensate for the death of a kitten, and ran the mile to her house. She wouldn’t take the dollar back and stood in her yard with her arms crossed, in a confusing mixture of defiance and remorse. Frustrated, I threw the dollar bill down at her feet and stormed away.
I wasn’t unaccustomed to death — as a farm boy I knew death had its place in life, but not with such violence. The death of the kitten in the cruel jaws of the dog had devastated me. Dixie had a strong will, however, and would not be discouraged. She returned to our farm again and again and gradually became my first real girlfriend, the one my brothers teased me about all that summer long. I learned a lot from her and with her about the forces of passion and violence that well up from within to shatter the illusions of innocence.
There were no adults in our world as we wandered through the fields and groves of West County. I brought her to the river to swim, and to the coast to see the ocean. We listened to records on her phonograph in her attic room — mostly Elvis and Pat Boone — and on the Fourth of July we set off fireworks over a neighbor’s irrigation pond, after rowing about in my little boat. One warm afternoon, as we watched the redtail hawks circling overhead, she fiercely set her jaw, saying “birds belong in the sky; airplanes don’t.”
I learned she and her father had come from Latvia, a country I had known nothing about, nor had I known about the crushing burden they had lived beneath, behind the Iron Curtain. Dixie knew Eastern Europe, from the Baltics to the Balkans, as intimately as I knew our coastline from Fort Ross to Bodega Bay.
She showed me photographs, black-and-white snapshots of places and people she had left behind; and, although she was glad to be here, she was sad not to still be there. Then she showed me the other pictures, of the remnants of war and the destruction that remained; these were in vivid colors — she wanted me to see it the way she knew it, without flinching.
I’ve since learned that, although we may have no choice over our circumstances, we can choose to recognize them for what they are, and to see them without flinching. There comes a point when we may feel overwhelmed, or we may instead galvanize ourselves and respond from what we know is right and true.
A paradigm shift is needed: to not scatter in the face of trauma but to focus, to not succumb to an invasion as a victim but rather to become a witness, and then — when possible and when necessary — to become a resistant partisan. As we are being shown in Ukraine, just as the body cannot identify with an invading virus and must fight it off, the identity of a strong people with its land must resist defeat by an invading army.
There is a deep grief for all the refugees streaming from conflicts and bad governments in so many parts of the world — from Central and South America, from Myanmar, Syria, and Ethiopia — and for all those who cannot escape but must remain, such as the Uyghurs, the Rohingyas, and the North Koreans. The strong people of Ukraine, the refugees who escape their horrible war and the others who stay to defend their country, none of them capitulate.
Like Dixie, none of them abandon the will to be who it is they are, wherever they go or however they remain, and we will honor that — for we have learned their agony, like their resolve, is now no longer distant.