Saturday, December 26, 2020

July 23, 1944: Silliness as a Balm


Letter from Opa to Grandmother, July 23, 1944.


July 23, 1944

My dearest little Margie,

This was a quiet Sunday, the kind you don't often enjoy nowadays. I slept till ten o'clock, when I was rude awakened by one of the boys with whom I went to church. It was pretty bad; a young minister who looked smart enough to know better, claimed that the most essential doctrine of Christianity is to believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ. If you don't believe in that, you are a heathen and your soul will roast in hell. It was so difficult for us to keep a straight face when he advised us to disassociate ourselves from all books written by such disbelievers as Einstein (!), Marx (!!), and Norman Thomas (?), "lest our faith be weakened and our souls be lost."

I had a nice 40-cent dinner, then went straight home and read: "Three Comrades" by Erich Maria Remarque. It is a book of between-war life in Germany; I wished you could read it, for it gives such a true picture of a life I want you so badly to understand. I read all afternoon, ate supper, and read again. Now I have been writing letters: to Eileen and Winton; easy persons to write to, for I can say to them what I want to without disguise and without shocking them, almost as though I wrote to you, or to my dad.

Just went out to get a coke and watch the Sunday-night drizzle of boy-meets-girl in St. John's drugstore. Can't quite understand how people can be so continually silly when so much is going on in the world, but I guess that's what makes for happiness.

Coming back, it seemed as though you should be there, waiting in my room, but no miracle brought you; I guess I'll have to go and fetch you!

Good night, darling, and lots of love,

Opa is such a conundrum to me. He continues to attend church, seemingly against his will, although no one would have forced him. He could have easily claimed his Jewish heritage, or even Quaker tradition, and they may have left him alone. But he continues to try church. 

I think there are a few reasons why he keeps going. He is doing his best to assimilate, and in mid-western USA, going to church is high on the list of blending in. Grandmother is deeply religious, having grown up Methodist with deep roots in the church (her grandparents were one of the founding members of the Methodist Church in her home town), and Opa wants to understand this part of who she is. He longs for her to understand his past (as he keeps recommending books for her to read so she can have a glimpse into his childhood), so he does the best he can to connect with hers. And last, I think much like his venture into the Quaker Youth group, Opa always had a thirst for a spiritual and intellectual community. I think he hoped to find that in one place. With the Quakers, he did. I think he longed to experience that again. That group gave him foundational memories and experiences that fueled and inspired him when things were hard. Those memories were some of the only positive memories he had of his German homeland. He hoped to recreate that community in the US. In some way, if he was able to do that, I think he then would be able to let go of Germany completely. 

Unfortunately this church did not fit the bill. It makes me so... annoyed and angry, that there is so much ridiculousness in the space that should be open to spiritual growth, discovery, and journeying. This pastor takes a religion and faith full of mystery and profound teachings and boils it down to a map to heaven, and a ticket to first class of morality. This pastor would have their parishioners check their brains at the door, miss out on the opportunity to engage fascinating theories and ideas by some of the greatest minds out there. 

I don't know why so many religious leaders assume that to listen and engage in conversation with someone means to completely adopt their point of view or worship an idol. If your faith is so weak that you cannot hear any challenge, it's not a faith worth protecting. Opa may have been in the business of assimilation, but he never checked his brain at the door. I think the Quakers gave him the gift of time and space to explore without fear that he would fall off the edge of the earth as a result. It gave him the fortitude to recognize what this pastor was saying was bologna. Fearful and immature spirituality at best. 

Interestingly enough - I was able to look up this man Opa had never heard of: Norman Thomas. He was actually a really fascinating person that I think Opa would have loved engaging, and that he may have unwittingly already heard of. Thomas was a pacifist Presbyterian minister. He had some unpopular ideas, but from what I read, his intentions and heart were consistent and well-intended. Whether someone would agree with his methods or means, I think that most could agree that the end result he was hoping for was one of goodness and true Christian value. 

Opa is more contemplative in this letter than usual. Perhaps the preacher got him thinking. He mentions his appreciation that he can write Eileen and Winton letters without worrying what they might think. Eileen was the librarian that Opa worked for at Kansas State, and Winton was one of his first friends there. 

Opa said he had this same openness with his Dad and Grandmother. He leaves his mother out, and though I know that would have hurt her (and I love her dearly), I can see what he meant. Ella, though more open and accepting than even Opa knew (she was the keeper of many family secrets), was still one to correct when someone was not doing what she felt was right and good. But that was her role as mother. The fact that August could hear anything without shock was nice, but also shows that his relationship with Opa was a little different than purely fatherly. August wanted to be a friend and intellectual comrade. Ella was mother only, and they needed that.

Opa ends with the reflection that it seems wrong for there to be so much silliness with what is happening in the world, but then he concedes that perhaps that silliness is part of the happiness that keeps everyone going. He knows that, because he himself was the happiest recipient of silly love through his relationship with Grandmother. Instead of being an affront to what is happening in the world, it was a balm.

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