Nazis I Have Known

As a wave of overt hatred and prejudice is rising in America like the polluted Jersey shore tide, fueled by white nationalists, the Alt-Right, and of all things Neo-Nazis, I’ve been reminiscing back to the simpler times of my childhood, when all of the U.S. of A. could agree that Nazis were bad, and that that conflict fought and won – WWII for the historically challenged – had put an end to that question. We had defeated the Krauts, Hitler, the Nazis, and then, having beaten them, took a victory lap at Nuremberg mostly for moral show, and then hired their best scientists to work for us, put their civic officials back in place (for they did know best how to ‘make their own trains run on time’), and considered the matter finished. Wasn’t it a simpler time?

Growing up outside Reading, PA with a music studio in our basement gave me an opportunity to meet some ‘interesting people’ as Bugs Bunny used to say. I’ve remarked previously about the high priest of a satanic cult (Mom and the Satan Worshiper). In this case, I want to briefly introduce you to Mrs. Schubert: Nazi Apologist. Mrs. Schubert either brought her children or grandchildren for lessons in our basement; those details are a blur and irrelevant. What is important is that Mrs. Schubert had been in Germany throughout World War II and had emigrated to the U.S. after the war with her family to seek new opportunities and economic advantage. She was (to my young mind) an elderly, pulled-back-grey-haired-harsh-voiced-bespectacled matron type that was neither nice nor naughty—just brusque, taut, and imposing. She was never anything but civil to me, and my memories of her are scant and few. However, I do remember one conversation vividly she had with my mother when I was a pre-teen. My mother, rarely afraid to ask the hard questions, inquired of Mrs. Schubert how much she actually knew of what was happening in Germany during Hitler: to the Jews, the gays, the minorities etc.? Mrs. Schubert stiffened and drew herself up, and spoke with an icy and almost comic defensiveness reminiscent of Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes.

“We knew nothing of it. Nothing. There were rumors of course, but nothing that we knew for certain.”

And then she added with venomous emphasis…

“You think you know what your government does, but you don’t! Your government does vicious things all around the world too, but you don’t know about it, do you? We knew nothing!”

And that ended the interrogation, and she left, and it was never spoken of again. After all, business is business and Mrs. Schubert was a loyal customer. Right, Mom?

What Mrs. Schubert did or didn’t know will never be known, but her defensiveness, and her deflection, spoke volumes. Either she knew absolutely nothing and was ashamed after the fact (which is somewhat unlikely given what we know from history); or she knew something and supported it; or she knew something, but like so many was afraid to speak out. My vote, perhaps naively, will remain on the latter. One thing that is certain: she was an opportunist that found the first available transport to come to America and make a better life for herself and her family, and leave that pesky Nazi-business behind.

But wait! There’s more. Lest you think this a falsely advertised blog post, I want to introduce you to Erwin “the German,” a gym buddy of mine. I don’t remember Erwin’s last name (if I ever knew it). We used to work out together at the Wyomissing Sheraton fitness center when hotels used to have open memberships. This was in the early ‘90s and Erwin was much older than me. That’s because he was a real-life-honest-to-goodness/evilness Nazi. By the time I knew Erwin he was a tall, loud, rugged, portly, slow-moving and half-blind, jovial joy. He made no secret of his past, and his contemporaries often teased him about his past by calling him “Erwin the German” loudly from the other side of the pool. It was meant, oddly, endearingly, and he took it as such. He had joined the Hitler Youth as a boy, and later been stationed on the Eastern Front to counter the Ruskie incursion. He implied he had been in the Battle of Stalingrad. He implied he had killed Russians. But he always talked about his past briefly, somewhat romantically, and without passion. The war had happened, he was an American citizen (still with a thick German accent, as was Mrs. Schubert), and he had moved to the States to become a plumber. He had had a good life in America and seemed to have no regrets.

Erwin died while I still frequented the gym and was mourned by all who knew him as a kind and generous friend. I have no doubt that Mrs. Shubert is also gone. I say Nazis – plural – in this blog title because, whatever Mrs. Schubert’s feeling on the subject of Nazism, it was evident that she was there, was not the target of their evil, and did little to nothing to stop their spread. Guilty by association perhaps. But I’ve written none of this to condemn either individual, but rather to draw a gentle parallel from the past to the present. Both of my Nazi acquaintances had been caught in something both unfortunate and larger than themselves – partly through fear, ignorance, disadvantage, youth or the combination, but when that something larger was defeated, they reverted back to being decent, productive citizens of a free society, and went on to lead fine and benign lives.  I look at all the young men and women in Charlottesville and elsewhere, that have been caught up in the wave of hatred, ignorance, fake news, and economic instability, and as much as I know we need to stop the spread of their ideology and terror, I also know that they are our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and colleagues, and we’re going to have to work together to bring them back into a basic understanding of what it really means to be an American, to live in a free and equal society. And that, of course, will require some punching of Nazis at the outset. But it will also require some measure of reaching out to those who can be reached, forgiving, and modeling a better way to be. Repaying hatred with hatred is not the answer. It will only perpetuate the resentment and violence. Hatred must be met with strength, firstly yes, but then needs to be listening, compassion, and healing. Perhaps if we try this we’ll find ourselves forty years from now with a few more Erwin’s than David Duke’s. It’s just a thought.

Auf wiedersehen,

Jason

A Visit with Amma the Hugging Saint

“You cannot taste the sweetness of honey by licking a piece of paper on which the word ‘honey’ has been written. Likewise, the principles described in the religious texts must be contemplated, meditated upon, and finally realized.” – Amma the “hugging” saint

On July 5, at 6:30 AM, I arrived at my church to pick up two dear friends, Laura and Elaine, for a ‘wacky adventure’ to the congested streets of Arlington, VA. We were going to visit Amma the Hindu “Hugging Saint” on her world tour (possibly her last), and had gotten up extra early to make sure that we were assured of a good place in line so that our efforts were not in vain. For various reasons, each of us really felt we needed our hug, and we didn’t want to be left out.

To be bluntly honest, I had never heard of Amma. Facebook (FACEBOOK!!!) advertised her to me repeatedly, and as a result, I became intrigued and ultimately interested in going. I am somewhat obsessed with spiritual experiences, books, movies, and the like, and am always looking for an opportunity to expand my awareness of cultures, world religions, and thought systems, so my becoming interested was not much of a stretch. And I love events. Hay House Publishing used to do events with their spiritual authors called I Can Do It! and Nancy and I drove to Atlanta for one years ago. When the Dalai Lama was in D.C. in 2010 for the Kalachakra, we were in attendance for a day. Nancy attended Pope Francis’s D.C. Mass, but Catholic U only had enough tickets for students and faculty, so I missed that one, but I wasn’t going to miss this! And that is why I was up at 4:45 AM on July 5, and picking up my friends at 6:30 AM.

Our drive up to Arlington was friendly and uneventful. Spitty rain and D.C. traffic slowed us a bit, but nothing serious. We arrived at the Marriott Crystal City just after 8 AM and struggled despairingly to find a parking space in their labyrinth of an underground parking garage, until keen-eyed Laura spied a solitary overlooked space behind a pole, boxed in by other cars, that may have been used by staff but bore no designated markings. We maneuvered the car into the hidden gem, struggled further to find the elevators, and finally, with some effort and agitation, found an escalator marked “Amma – this way” – and knew we had arrived.

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Amma the “Hugging Saint” Image courtesy of Pintarest; no copyright info available

The next unexpected hurdle in our spiritual odyssey occurred almost immediately as we were confronted with hotel security bearing the Peanuts-gang-like message of “No Dogs Allowed” in variously hushed if vehement tones. My one friend, Elaine, had brought her licensed therapy dog along (a choice she had made after exhaustingly researching Amma’s website and deeming it acceptable), but Amma’s people had apparently not communicated their desires to the hotel management, the result being a serious conflict of protocol. I’m not going to dwell on this incident further out of discretion and respect for my friend, but suffice it to say, Elaine was wholly in the right, justice prevailed, a beautiful person named Victoria became the dog’s best friend (and ours) for the next few hours, and the Marriott needs to seriously rethink its customer service. For my part, I watched my friend repeatedly attempt to resolve the matter with Herculean strength, grace, and some frazzled charm, and my respect for her grew immensely as she fiercely protected her legal rights and those of her little charge. No adventure occurs without obstacles. But back to Amma.

“The aim of devotion and prayer is to develop love for everyone.”   – Amma the “hugging” saint

We were seated in one of several ballrooms, equipped with a stage at one end and an exhaustive gift shop at the other. We waited for more than an hour, watching a video scroll of Amma’s good works both here and abroad. She arrived on time at 10 AM, conducted a mostly silent – if loudly amplified – meditation, and by 10:40 AM the “hugging queue” was formed and the hugs began. My friends and I were in the first hour of the line and were moved swiftly barefoot from chair to chair, up onto the stage, and eventually into Amma’s waiting arms. It is not my place to retell how my friends felt about their experience, but each of us responded positively if differently. When it was my turn, I was hoisted before Amma on my knees and bent towards her at the waist. My body, for some inexplicable reason, became rigid. She gripped me, pulled me away from her body, gripped me tighter, and started whispering a Hindu prayer into my right ear. The world fell away, and for a few moments it was only she and I. Then she pulled me away from her body, looked me full in the face, handed me a present, and I was lifted by handlers emotionally to my feet and away from her embrace. I was dazed and unsteady and the handlers escorted me to a nearby seat, where I observed my friends have similar, but vastly different interactions with the woman known as “Mother.”

The three of us, satisfied that we had accomplished our goals, toured the gift shop, went to retrieve the car and dog, and headed out of Arlington for lunch and eventually a drop off at the church. We talked incessantly about the adventure, our various acutely emotional experiences with Amma, and the pros and cons of the day. The ballroom was exceedingly noisy throughout the event, even during the meditation to a degree, and Amma’s handlers were a swirl of activity throughout her hugging sessions. Amma was constantly talking to them, advising them, etc. while she was hugging participants, and that did diminish the intimacy and interpersonal communication one may have expected from the moment. She was also sweating profusely, it seemed, and constantly dabbing herself with a white towel, which made us wonder what was making her so hot. Was she ill, or was it just the intensity of her being? On the other hand, the thousands of devout participants at the event were staggering in their devotion, kindness, and compassion. Without the efforts of Victoria (truly living Amma’s message), our visit may have ended very differently and sadly. People in attendance were very open and receptive to being engaged in conversation and were exceedingly kind. All three of us felt the power of Amma’s energy/soul/compassion/what have you, coming off her and it was dizzying, enabling, and awe-inspiring. Laura quipped it best, and I paraphrase, “She seems to be in a perpetual state of happiness.” As little as I know about her even now, I know she is the real deal. Sorry fundamentalists of any faith, sainthood is about character and action, not about belief system. I’ve been in the presence of at least three “saints” in my life, and their aura of love is so palpable that it’s almost a narcotic “high.”

“The sun shines down, and its image reflects in a thousand different pots filled with water. The reflections are many, but they are each reflecting the same sun. Similarly, when we come to know who we truly are, we will see ourselves in all people.” – Amma the “hugging” saint

Five days since the event, I still don’t know a great deal about Amma. I watched the videos, read her Wikipedia article, and was hugged by her for heaven’s sake, but don’t know much else. I had never heard of her before, which I don’t understand, since she’s been touring the world for more than thirty years, hugging, raising millions for disaster relief here and abroad, building hospitals, advocating for the rights of women and children, and preaching a message of universal compassion. How is it we get so fixated on other lesser things that even when people do high-profile-good works for decades, it can still be lost to us until it’s advertised on Facebook? What does it take to put that which is truly important – peace, love, charity, compassion, kindness – front and center in the minds of the masses and the media? I honestly don’t know. But for what it’s worth, I’m grateful to Facebook for their targeted ads, I’m grateful to my friends for accompanying me on this adventure, and I’m grateful to Amma for the hug and for being who she is: a light in a dark world. May all such beings (and rest assured there are more and I’ll meet them) continue to shine, even in social media anonymity. We need you. We really need you.

Namaste,

Jason

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Three merry adventurers – Laura, myself, and Elaine – after our day of hugs, joy, and self-discovery

The Collateral Damaged (An Open Letter for the Cultivation of Universal Compassion)

My dear friend,

You are special to me. And you know who you are. We have grown up together, and we have just met. We have worked together, played together, dined together, and worshiped together. We have eaten the same foods, watched some of the same TV and movies, read fewer of the same books, and don’t listen to the same music. But I am dear to you and you are dear to me. And for that I thank you.

I understand that you are having trouble coming to terms with your feelings over the Orlando Massacre this past Sunday morning. Forty-nine mostly presumably gay men and women gunned down in a gay nightclub, the worst mass shooting in US history. A troubled, disgruntled ISIS sympathizer was to blame, ISIS has taken credit (or at least wanted to share the spotlight), and now you’re scared for your safety, angry that this could happen on American soil, looking to lay blame on something larger than one shooter, and feeling simultaneously, distressingly both compassion for and dispassionate toward the victims. As a person who doesn’t really support marriage equality and is leery of homosexuality in general, some of your feelings seem a bit at odds with your politics and your faith. By Sunday morning’s news the event had already become heavily polarizing and politicized, and a young Sacramento-based Baptist minister had gone viral saying that the massacre was God’s will, and you shouldn’t mourn for the gay dead because they are “all pedophiles,” and that they all “should be rounded up and shot.” That’s not your faith as you understand it, but you’re still confused by the contradictory faith-based messages you’re hearing. I get it. I have been there and I have been you.

As a suburban white child born to parents who were both born in 1929, even though we were a seemingly liberal-minded performing arts household, we had little to no discussion about gay people in our home. My father would never discuss such things, and my mother believed in treating everyone kindly (even if they were “odd”). She wasn’t sure if homosexuality was genetic or a choice, and mostly kept an open mind toward everyone since vocal opinions were “bad for business.” In hindsight, I’d say that, just like you, my upbringing was passively homophobic, based upon the agreed upon social conventions of suburbia in the 1970s. I had a best friend with a gay mother, my mother had a high school classmate who had been in the road company of The Pajama Game that lived over the beer distributor with another man, and I had a school music teacher who was closeted, but they were the exception, not the rule. They were odd and we were normal. We didn’t persecute, but we did subconsciously, politely judge. My parents were taught right and wrong by their parents, both born in the 1800s, and they passed that value system onto me: simple, honest, and always with the belief that what they were doing was for my own good and through love. So, my friend, I hear, I understand, and I have no right to judge you; only love you for who you are, and who you could become.

My passed-on parental beliefs went unchallenged until early on in my college years and didn’t start to shift until I had almost graduated. Change is hard after all, and changing one’s mind is often hardest of all. Decades of programming and experiences had to be sifted through before I could be who I am today. And I’m happy to say that I am more open-minded, compassionate, loving, and non-judgmental than I’ve ever been….but not always. I have my bad days, my blind spots, my old grudges, and my lazy moments when I fall back on old programming. I’m better than before, but far from perfect, and I know you love me as I am, and I love you too, even though we’re both still growing beyond our programming. That’s life right? Growth and change.

So, as I said at the beginning of this letter, I know you’re having trouble sorting out your feelings, your own programming regarding this “gay tragedy.” Perhaps I can, with love and compassion, give you a different perspective to consider, one that transcends the boundaries of the minority group for whom you hold mixed feelings. To date…

 Fifty people lost their lives in this tragedy, including the shooter. That said:

  • 100 Moms and Dads lost a child
  • Moms and Dads who were struggling to accept their child
  • Moms and Dads who had
  • Moms and Dads who fought with their child when they last spoke
  • Moms and Dads who parted with an “I love you”

None of them, none of them, thought that that would be the last time they would speak, or argue, or hug, or say “I love you.”

  • 200 Grandmothers, grandfathers, Nanas, and Pop Pops lost their grandchildren. What are they to think? What has happened to our world? Why would anyone do that to their little love?
  • Untold siblings lost their big or little brother, big or little sister, their playmate, their helpmate, their bunkmate, the only one who ever understood them.
  • Untold co-workers woke up to find their friend, their colleague, their secret crush, their ex, their “thorn in their side” would never be seen at work anymore; would never make them laugh, or smile, or brighten their day.
  • Hundreds of ex-boyfriends and girlfriends learned they had run out of time to heal the past, make amends, or reconnect. A wound shall remain a wound.
  • And hundreds of current boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses just had their world shattered and their other half ripped away.
  • 1000s of teachers, elementary, middle-school, high school, and college, woke up to find that their star or underperforming pupil, the one they rooted so hard for, invested in, believed in, went to bat for…was no more. What a waste. What a loss.
  • Hundreds of pets – cats, dogs, birds, fish, exotics – just lost their best friend, their sleep buddy, their food friend, their reason for being, their Forever Home.
  • And then, of course, there’s always the possibility that some of the dead had human children of their own, both genetic and adopted. What of them? What of them? What of them?
  • And just in case it needs to be said, most of those left behind, suffering, grieving, coping, questioning, are heterosexual like you and me.

 You see, my friend, my dear friend, no tragedy like this ever occurs in its own bubble. There is no such thing as an isolated tragedy, and this was not just a gay tragedy, or not even a human tragedy, but rather a global one. When you consider all the lives each of us touches simply by being, then magnify that by 50, then multiply that again by another 50 for the survivors, the impact is unfathomable. And if, as you scanned the list above, you felt your heart break open for those left behind, let me tell you that it’s only one short nonjudgmental step till you find compassion for the victims – all of them – those that were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and those whose childhood programming left them damaged and full of hate. I’m just up ahead around the bend on Compassion’s Road because, like you, I started from behind without knowing it.

But I know you can catch me up and even surpass me.

I have faith in you.

And I love you.

See you on the road.

Jason

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