Private and public life

Quotes from A Chorus of Stone: The Private Life of War by Susan Griffin

“…each solitary story belongs to a larger story”

 “Often I have looked back into my past with a new insight only to find that some old, hardly recollected feeling fits into a larger pattern of meaning.”

“Is there a child who existed before the conventional history that we tell of ourselves, one who, though invisible to us, still shapes events, even through this absence?”

Today I’m sharing some more pencil artwork. I’d like to say that one of these drawings is dedicated to my mother-in-law, who succumbed to illness and passed away early. Also, I’m discussing a book I’ve completed reading, in which the writer powerfully reveals our embeddedness in history and our inescapable interdependence, and also, how the public arena and the personal are connected. And I’m referring to the book Το Βραχιόλι της Φωτιάς /  The Baracelet of Fire by Jewish Greek writer Beatrice Saias Magrizou.












In reading the book and through the process of making these drawings I got in touch with the burdens we carry, whether conscious or not, of those that came before us or those living alongside of us and of how history and patriarchy define a lot of what is considered as our individual lives, I felt the physical and emotional weight of the ordinary and often taken for granted oppressed and suppressed lives of women. This realization became more salient while making the portrait of my mother-in-law, who died when I was quite young and she was fifty two.  I felt the commonalities of my own life and the lives of all the mother figures in my life despite our different personalities, experiences, education and circumstances.

The book I’ll be discussing today, A Chorus of Stones by Susan Griffin has received awards and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It is a courageous exploration of many things, but mostly the interconnection of our private life and the horrors of war and large scale violence, and the devastation they ultimately, leave behind for generations to come. Griffin reflects on how history, social structures and discourse shape our individual experience out there in the world and in our psychology and body, but also how boys are shaped into men and soldiers. She explores the common threads between destruction and self-destruction at an individual and at a mass level. Through her own and others’ intergenerational stories she examines how dynamics of parenting, childhood, marriage and family interweave with the larger scale events like wars and other destructive processes at a global level. She claims that “each solitary story belongs to a larger story”.

Griffin offers us an understanding of the psychology of war through providing glimpses into the personal lives of many historic figures like British officer Sir Hugh Trenchard, who began as a critic of strategic bombing, but later abandoned this belief, Mahatma Gandhi, Nazi Heinrich Himmler, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway and many other historical figures, writers and poets, artists, the scientists behind the building of more and more sophisticated weapons, but also ordinary people like the workers at Oak Ridge, a community that was planned around nuclear plants and research facilities. She makes us think about poverty and unemployment and how the only available work in the field of nuclear engineering was the weapons industry. We hold our breath as she tells the stories of a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, a soldier exposed to radiation and the attempts to silence him, the history of the atomic testing and the radiation experiments in the late sixties on cancer patients.

Griffin succeeds in creating intimate narratives of the grand architects of war, those that created and those that dropped bombs, soldiers and civilians, survivors and other witnesses to history, and many others whose personal relationships and family histories were impacted or forever changed by war,  Griffin’s psychologically informed accounts show us how early life and personal experiences and the cultural milieu might have shaped the inner lives and worldviews of the architects of violence and those that created history. She also examines how war and large scale violations are rooted in lies and denial that are linked to denial, secrets and lies of families and individuals. She explores the consequences and impact of secrets and secret mechanisms at personal, familial, societal and governmental levels.  She gives examples: “The public was told that old Dresden was bombed to destroy strategic railway lines. There were no railway lines in that part of the city.”

The book contains many threads and layers of stories that are artfully weaved to reveal the bigger tapestry of life. I will only be touching on the central themes. Griffin uses memoir, history, myths, journalism and facts, imagination, juxtapositions, and character sketches to create a powerful narrative. The book reads like a novel. She links and creates bridges across events and lives. At first the narrative might seem fragmentary as Griffin might move from the story of her grandfather or her grandmother’s efforts through: Grammar, Manners. Memorization and Drill, to reshape her as a young child, to a strategic bombing, Hiroshima, a concentration camp in Europe, the Cold War,  the invasions of Vietnam and Iraq. Then we she might lead us to Alabama ,in the USA, where after WWII Wermer von Braun is designing rockets. She writes about the wars of antiquity in Greece and Troy, for instance, and wonders if the Helen of Troy might have been only a caricature of a real woman.  We see into the inner world of Clytemnestra as she witnesses the sacrifice of Iphigenia by  Agamemnon. We learn that this is the second child he takes from her.

Griffin does not only write about the historical facts. For instance, when she writes about Gandhi she makes it possible for us to see what the inner workings of his mind and his inner voices might have been. We see the historical moments that might have defined his making. Similarly, she creates a powerful character sketch of Nazi Heinrich Himmler, who became the architect of the Jewish genocide. We witness his controlling father and stifling upbringing, where a sustained effort is made to utterly stamp emotions out of him, we see him repeating his classmates’ confidences to his father, who is a schoolmaster.

Meanwhile, she uses short italic passages to tell us about cell biology and  the development of weapons and guided missiles in Germany and then by some of the same scientists in the USA. These narratives are like two narrow, parallel rivers moving throughout the book. One river is murky and dark. It constricts our body. It feels more and more menacing as we witness the evolution of weapons into more and more sophisticated tools of destruction. But through this impressive mosaic structure we get to see the depths and breadth of the interconnection of both events and lives across places and time.

Griffin examines the relationship between war and denial and how there is a social structure that fragments events and where one is never allowed to see the effects of what one does.  She writes: “I am not free of [denial] the condition I describe here. I cannot be certain how far back in human history the habit of denial can be traced. But it is at least as old as I am. In our common history, I have found it in the legends surrounding the battle of Troy, and in my own family I have traced it three generations back, to that recent time past when there had been no world wars and my grandparents were young. All that I was taught at home or in school was colored by denial, and thus it became so familiar to me that I did not see it.” And elsewhere she writes: “We are not used to associating our private lives with public events. Yet the histories of families cannot be separated from the histories of nations. To divide them is part of our denial.”

Some level of dissociation must have been in place for the atrocities of war to have taken place by ordinary people, who after cremating civilians, for instance, returned home to walk their dogs and play with their children.  Some level of denial and compartmentalization needs to be in place in order to design bombs or to go to work at a nuclear plant day in day out. She writes: “The men and women who manufacture the trigger mechanisms for nuclear bombs do not tell themselves they are making weapons. They say simply that they are metal forgers.” Elsewhere she notes: “These crimes, these murders of millions, were all carried out in absentia, as if by no one in particular.” One woman she interviewed that had survived one of Himmler’s death camps said she had been turned in by another Jew and tracked down through a net of information a system tracing back to Himmler. Griffin writes: “One can trace every death to an order signed by Himmler, yet these arrests could never have taken place on such a massive scale without this vast system of information. What did they think, those who were enlisted for this work?” She also points to the use of denial to gain some sense of control both at a personal and collective level. She writes: “By denying the truth of an event, one gains the illusion of control.” She links denial with silencing, censorship and holding back the truth and its consequences. She writes: “The troubling nature of censorship is clearer when it falls on the very young. A certain kind of silence, that which comes from holding back the truth, is abusive in itself to a child….”

Griffin also looks at emotions like shame, fear, despair, anger, rage and revenge and finds these both in historical figures and her own self.  She finds the core of her own rage as she remembers being unjustly punishment by her grandmother at the age of eight. At an educational context I was told that unfair punishment has served as an educational strategy since antiquity. She writes about the hidden shame, the fears and the pains that humanity carries, the consequences of these experiences on one’s own body, but also on others, and about the high price we pay as a species for mentally and physically brutalizing people out of their more “authentic” selves. She clarifies that psychology is one important route to understanding our human history and our lives; however, there are many other lens to see through and many reasons and causes to consider. She writes: “Rather a field exists, like a field of gravity that is created by the movements of many bodies. Each life is influenced and it in turn becomes an influence. Whatever is a cause is also an effect. Childhood experience is just one element in the determining field.”

Griffin includes the topic of self destruction and of suicide. Griffin writes that she finds Charlotte’s story especially pertinent now because she addresses the question of self-destruction and she [Griffin] has come to believe that our shared movement toward nuclear war is a movement toward mass suicide.  She introduces us to the young German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who newly married and pregnant died in the holocaust. Charlotte’s work of art titled: Life or Theatre? consists of 769 paintings, that depict her life story with words written on some of the paintings, and an accompanying text and even indicated music, which gives it the form of a theatrical play. In order to view and listen to it online one needs to spend several hours, but it’s worth engaging with it. Most of this work was completed between two arrests.  Charlotte traces this almost unbelievable pattern of suicides in her family and writes she will tell the story so as not to repeat this cycle of self destruction in her family.

Charlotte, through her images and commentary, help us understand how “a menacing public history has been unfolding at the edge of her private story.” Griffin notes that Charlotte was trapped “as if by a vise, one arm of which is the torment of her private life and the other the danger of the public world. Her private troubles are depicted against a background of dramatic historical events. … Her story is simultaneously a story about war and about a family.” Griffin also mentions that in her work in progress about Charlotte’s life and work, Mary Felstiner points out that the suicide rate in Germany at the time was high, and was rising among upper-middle-class women and Jews. Through Griffin’s analysis and Charlotte’s work we catch glimpses of underlying reasons and circumstances. As Charlotte’s grandfather comes to the foreground we catch a glimpse of another thread. We realize that we need to consider patriarchy and the roles and places women have had n society.

There is a painting that shows Charlotte’s mother sitting alone, in a vacant apartment after getting married. Griffin writes one cannot but think of this young woman who just days before, working long hours in the wards of a hospital, was situated at the heart of public life, sitting now by herself with nothing much to do. And elsewhere, she writes that these same qualities of vitality and an independent spirit are the same qualities that fire her self-destruction. Griffin asks:  “Had this opening existed for Charlotte’s mother, would she have continued living? I know that my own mother felt confined in the smallness of domestic life…..  Over time, as many women do, my mother became inseparable from her confinement. She was defined by all she could not do, and then never did and then feared doing. She lost the capacity to imagine any other life,”

Griffin also demonstrates how her own life is connected to Himmler’s life and how our lives are can be connected to or impacted by people and events far away. She writes: “As a man who made history, Heinrich Himmler shaped many childhoods, including, in the most subtle of ways, my own. And an earlier history, a history of governments, of wars, of social customs, an idea of gender….. shaped Heinrich Himmler’s childhood as certainly as any philosophy of child-raising.”  She refers to the impact of the German childrearing experts’ advice to dominate and suppress, and to crush the will of the child. Dr. Schreber advised “The child should be permeated by the impossibility of locking something in his heart.”

Beliefs and ideas, nuclear fallout, pollution, traumas and other miseries travel in time and they cross borders. Himmler made history that had devastating effects miles away from Germany. In her book Το Βραχιόλι της Φωτιάς / The Bracelet of Fire [a summer read] Jewish Greek writer Beatrice Saias Magrizou traces her family’s history in the 20th century in Salonika, where about 96% of the people from the Jewish community there [46.091 people] were sent to Auschwitz.  Only 1950 returned. They found sixty of their synagogues, their cemetery, schools and their properties in ruins. Magrizou’s narrative of betrayal, denial and the procedures of recording every single Jew by the Gestapo, and what followed, are similar to the stories in Griffin’s book.

I will end this piece with two quotes, one from each of these books. Magrizou, referring to herself, writes at the end of her book: “….she felt the need to write about truths, so that the world might become a better place.” Griffin writes: “Only we know that the consequences of every act continue and themselves cause other consequences until a later generation will accept the circumstances created of these acts as inevitable. Unless, instead this generation tries to unravel the mystery.”

Just art

“We forget that we are history. We have kept the left hand from knowing the right.”

“Perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.”

From A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War by Susan Griffin

“Human rights consist of the right to be, the right to become, and the right to belong” Thomas Hubl

September in Greece and art

“THE WALL There is such cruelty in exclusivity, and such exclusivity in the entitled. And there are many walls.”  From Am I Pretty When I Fly? An Album of Upside Down Drawings by Joan Baez

“It’s incredible how fear is built into you, by your parents and others surrounding you. You’re so innocent in the beginning you don’t know.”  From Walk Through Walls: A Memoir by Marina Abramovic, performance artist

An artist has to understand silence. An artist has to create a space for silence to enter his / her work. Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean.”  Marina Abramovic, performance artist

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.” Native American Proverb

“We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can’t speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish and trees.” Qwatsinas, Nuxalk Nation

Susan David, whose work focuses on emotions and values, refers to a beautiful greeting used in South Africa, where she comes from, “sawubona”, an African word for “hello”. She says: “There’s a beautiful and powerful intention behind the word because “sawubona,” literally translated, means, “I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being.” In Greek our most common greeting when meeting and saying goodbye is “Γειa σου” [Yiassou], which derives from the Greek word for health [υγεία] and more or less translates into “May you have health”.  So, today I would like to open this September post with these two greetings.











At a personal level September has so far been a more or less uneventful month, with jobs and repair work around the house and in the garden in preparation for winter. We’re also still visiting the beach when the weather is not too windy, but at another level this month has brought disaster as the much anticipated autumn rains have wreaked havoc in Greece [and elsewhere]. This September has brought collective concern, grief and worry in my part of the world. It has brought environmental destruction of “biblical” proportions.  Mostly central Greece has experienced floods that have left a trail of devastation with roads, bridges, buildings, dams and vital infrastructure uprooted and washed away. Entire villages have literally been erased, “wiped off the map” as I read somewhere.

From my home I have felt some of this pain. It has impacted me viscerally while watching the News and thinking about it as I’ve gone through my days, waking up during the night worrying about people I know. Greece, being small, makes it more likely for us to know people from all over the country, which brings the whole thing home in a different kind of way. I’ve been anxiously anticipating what might happen in particular villages or communities. I’ve felt strong surges of empathy and compassion. I’ve thought of the things that should have been in place to work as buffers in at least some situations, I worry about the future and how all this will unfold for the people who are going through this. What will become of the thousands of dead farm animals and the vehicles that are floating in the water? I think of the people who have lost their lives. I worry about how people will survive financially. I think about what the future holds for us at a planetary level.  As I watched people on rooftops waiting for days to be rescued and others refusing to leave their homes, the drinking water shortages and the destruction of infrastructures I could not but also feel anger at how economic and political decisions going far back both in Greece, but also in other much bigger contexts of concentrated power, have led to the broader ecological crisis.

People have died and many have watched their houses go under water losing everything they owned, while others have lost farmland, crops, farm animals and small businesses, their livelihood. Areas that depended heavily on tourism resemble war zones. I don’t think the country has ever been through such extreme flooding. Storm Daniel dropped a year’s worth of rain on central Greece in one day. It will probably change the morphology of the affected areas and it definitely brought the destructive face of Nature to the foreground of our awareness. And all this has taken place after a summer of unprecedented forest fires.

The economic catastrophe is massive since the productive heart of the country is in central Greece. Flood-stricken Thessaly region is one of Greece’s richest agricultural areas, generating more than a quarter of the country’s agricultural produce. These swamp like areas now are also ripe for the spread of diseases. There is no electricity, no clean tap water and there are shortages in bottled water. Three years ago the same area was hit by a rare for the Mediterranean cyclone, Ianos, and funding was allocated for the construction and reinforcement of anti-flood structures. It is obvious that any anti-flooding measures that were in place failed to shield the flood stricken areas from these extreme weather phenomena. For reasons that will, as time unfolds, become clear, it seems that the quantity and / or quality of the existing infrastructure were not sufficient.

Some voices support that “we are all in this together”. Well, honestly, it will not be the same for everyone. It never is. This cliché phrase can sometimes be unhelpful, because it does not reflect the whole truth. We could say it is both true and not true.  If not clarified it can obscure hard facts about circumstances and people’s different realities and can often lead to the silencing of anger that can motive action, and indignation or truth telling, often named blaming. Yes, we are interconnected, what happens in one part of the country or the world and to our fellow human beings impacts us in many significant visible and invisible ways. The effects of this interdependence are seen in ecological, economic, social, emotional, psychological and biological levels, But it is also true, in this current situation for instance, that those who have jobs that can allow them to work elsewhere or those that have the means to buy a new house or farmland or rebuild a life, will be more able to start over in the midst of their grief and losses. Others will be in a far more tragic situation. And for those winessing from afar, no matter how deeply they feel the pain and provide support or are impacted by the side effects of this disaster, it will be a whole different matter.

At this point we cannot but hope that the State will deliver and that it will provide adequate financial support, and that there will be compensations and rebuilding of communities. We hope that the elderly and those with no means will be taken care of. We hope that this new environmental tragedy will finally result in more responsible policies and actions concerning the environmental crisis, and also, the need for the right infrastructures to be put in place. We also hope that what is known as Greek hospitality, as well as, solidarity, community and compassion will be extended to those in need.

There a piece in Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism without Beliefs, on belonging and compassion. He explains how our compassion usually extends to those on one side of the invisible barrier that segregates us from the rest of the world. It is easier for us to feel compassion for all that belongs to the domain of “me” and “mine” like ourselves, our friends and families, our communities and sports teams. He writes: “The bonds that unite us, be they common parents or an arbitrary preference for the same football team, are exaggerated by desire for belonging and fear of rejection. This in turn leads to a hardening perception of “us” and “them.”

However, he continues it  is not always like this because there are times when the barrier is lifted and we feel for other people’s pains, people we don’t know and people who don’t belong to our groups. He writes: “I find myself moved by the plight of those I do not know and probably never will: the hungry child, the abandoned dog, the streams of refugees….. And when I finally run into S and he tells me how scared he’s been of telling anyone he’s HIV positive, all the resentment vanishes and his grief and terror become mine too. For as long as these fragile moments last, I inhabit a world where all living things are united by their yearning to survive and be unharmed. I recognize the anguish of others not as theirs but as ours. It is as though the whole of life has been revealed as a single organism: reaching out to someone in pain is as natural and unself-conscious as my hand’s reaching out to my injured knee.”

This month I’ve also felt tired, but still I’ve done some reading and looked at some art, and I’ve made some drawings, while considering painting again as the weather becomes cooler. I’ve also been listening to some Joan Baez interviews after buying her new short memoir with upside down and non-dominant hand sketches and drawings she has made. I’m glad Baez published these sketches and drawings. Her experimentations reminded me of my own left hand drawings at one point. I had used my non-dominant hand to lightly complement my right hand drawings, which I found enhanced the symbolic and emotive nature of these drawings.

I think some of her cartoon captions, being culturally and era specific, eluded my full understanding, but art once it has moved from the creator to the audience is there for the viewers or the participants to engage with and make their own sense of it. Performance artist, from ex Yugoslavia, as she likes to say, Marina Abramovic, has among other things claimed in her manifesto: An artist creates his own symbols. Symbols are an artist’s language. The language must then be translated. Sometimes it is difficult to find the key.”

In the introduction of the book with the title, How I Got Turned Upside Down, Baez describes her earliest experiences with art making: “When I was very young, I drew a little girl with her hair flying in the wind. She was holding a kite, which was flying in the opposite direction, but all in all, it was a pretty good depiction for a child. Soon afterwards, I graduated to drawing cows with enormous udders, then tepees. At school, with lots of crayons, I filled an entire sheet of construction paper with a picture of the earth, then took a paper towel and rubbed the whole thing until it shone….. In third grade, I drew pictures of Bambi and Thumper on plain paper from an art pad. I cut them to size and sold them to my classmates for three cents apiece.” For some of us who loved drawing and making art as children some of her stories will ring familiar.

In the following chapters we get to see the evolution of her art activities at different points in time. For instance, when she was eleven she was given a book with a sketch of a woman’s profile on the cover, titled Draw Me, and a wooden human figure with moving parts. In another chapter she describes her return to art through painting portraits when she was seventy. She writes:  “One day, I decided to paint a portrait…….  I went on to paint portraits of people who had made social change through non-violence.” Through her humorous sketches and short chapters she also touches upon topics like exclusivity, bullying, cruelty, patriarchy, the extinction of species and the damage we are causing the environment, and more.

In the previous post on belonging,  I referred to another book with illustrations The Arrival by Shaun Tan about migration and immigrants’ spirit and stories of trauma and resilience. I’m returning to this today, as I’ve been relooking at the book.

On the last page of the Greek edition, the publisher [I think] writes; “What’s it like to travel, to an unknown country, without knowing what awaits you? To hope for a better life, with no guarantee of finding it? What’s it like to feel foreign and alone, overlooking a  – perhaps – inhospitable place where you will build your future? You seek better opportunities for your life without having confronted your fears. The great fear of every immigrant that is uprooted from their homeland. Will they remember what has been left behind? Will they find something that will be worth the trauma of separation?”

In his website Shaun Tan writes:

“Beyond any personal issues, though, I think that the ‘problem’ of belonging is perhaps more of a basic existential question that everybody deals with from time to time, if not on a regular basis. It especially rises to the surface when things go wrong with our usual lives, when something challenges our comfortable reality or defies our expectations – which is typically the moment when a good story begins too. We often find ourselves in new realities – a new school, job, relationship or country, any of which demand some reinvention of ‘belonging.”

You can read more about the book and the topic of belonging at his website:

Finally, I’ve also been reducing my inbox. As I’ve been sifting through e-mails, I found one that included a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, which I thought I’d share here today as a way to end this post:

Quiet friend who has come so far,  /   feel how your breathing makes more space around you.

Let this darkness be a bell tower   /   and you the bell. As you ring,

What batters you becomes your strength.   /   Move back and forth into the change.

What is it like, such intensity of pain?  /   If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,   /   be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,  /  the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,   /   say to the silent earth: I flow.

To the rushing water, speak: I am.