6/10/2011

Stilts of Abstraction: A Few Photographic Musings About Absence and Presence. And More.


A whiff of lavender. Annecy, France.

I am drawn to moments when the blurred images are so inviting and attractive in their presence. I guess, as a theologian Eugene Peterson would put it - It’s the Absence giving way to the Presence. He refers to faith “with its classic and never yet improved upon definition,” “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Letter to Hebrews, 11:1).

This brings me to nostalgia. We just saw a fascinating treatment of the Absence-Presence reality in the current Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” film. The film depicts a writer on his return visit to Paris, who dreams of escaping from being a hired hand in scriptwriting, and sets his sights on writing a real novel like Hemingway or Fitzgerald.

Driving through the City of Light. Paris, France.

This is a clever, and well-written screenplay by Woody Allen through which he is inviting us into a desire to push our own borders - a perfect novel, perhaps? We are invited to the City of Light depicted from dawn to darkness in which Gil, the writer, travels into his idealized past, rejects fake intellectualism, and celebrates what Paris can give him in culture, art and life. He is so set on the attraction of Paris that he keeps repeating that the city is great even when it rains.

Without attempting to write a film review here, I identified myself with a personal fascination with a back and forth journey in which past is idealized and becomes meaningful as the present and the future tickles one’s eagerness to complete the Absence with arriving at fulfilling Presence.

Basically, the film spoke to me in its depiction of nostalgia – a world of comparing the now with the then.

In essence, was one being invited into a permanent quest for a journey of faith, which has its evidence in what already was?

My favorite Gospel illustration comes from a story of a disciple of Jesus who was invited to join Him – Matthew. His belief, it seems, was born in an instant. How this happened, I don’t have a clue. But what happened to him later gave the answer. His choice was not placed on stilts of abstraction.

Great things always come in concrete reality, hope and grace including. Such wonderful arrivals at Absence-Presence can be witnessed among those who have been described by the song Amazing Grace. Such arrivals are not visible among those who are just, who are perfect. Such people are usually too busy with their good works!

My preoccupation – even fixation - with nostalgia draws me to abstract images of life – when moments are captured in a movement. Then, my imagination kicks in.

Being nostalgic for stuff that matters? What an idea to consider.

A moving boat. Lake Titicaca, Puno, Peru.

Walking and talking. Hong Kong.

Stain glass window. Burtonsville, Maryland,
United States.

Blue eyes. Heidelberg, Germany.

Taking tea. Insa-dong, Seoul, Korea.

A rhapsody in silk. Insa-dong, Seoul, Korea.

Turquoise moment. Hong Kong.

Life as a mannequin. Heidelberg, Germany.

6/01/2011

Identity. More on a moving target. (2)

[NOTE: In part one, a pursuit of who I am considered influences of the maternal-side of the family. Now, it’s time for contributors to my DNA from my father’s side.]

River Dojnicia in Bojarka, Ukraine, is a memorial to
the Polish families who suffered the purges and atrocities
of WWII.

My father’s family also supplied many of the genetic bricks that have affected who I am. My other grandfather, Jan Dabrowski, was a soldier. I never met him. His claim to fame was that he was in General Jozef Heller’s army fighting with the Bolsheviks on the Polish-Ukrainian frontline in the 1918-1919s. Military victories in those days awarded the troops with plots of land where the victors settled. In the village of Bojarka, near Dubno, my father Stanislaw and three of his siblings, Luba, Ludwik and Waclaw, were born.

Piotr Zubko, my father's cousin introduced us to his traditionally
decorated home. "We live how we always
lived in this village," he commented when we visited them in 2000.

The early successes of settling and establishing their homestead in a Polish enclave of Western Ukraine were met with Ukrainian nationalistic resistance, ethnic cleansing, and the German invasion. The Polish families were intimidated and ruthlessly driven out, or exterminated. Among others, my dad recalls two distinct images from his childhood – a body of his uncle, Antoni, in a village brook, Dojnicia, with nails sticking out of his head, and that of a crying mother, against a background of a burning house and barn as he, and his older brother Ludwik, were escaping the German invaders on a balmy day in August 1943, hiding in a straw-high horse-cart.

House no more: "This is where our house stood.
It was burning when I last saw it," my father recalled.

A courtyard well in a house where the Antoni Dabrowski family lived.
"He was a blacksmith. This crank he made is still working."

My father’s brush with spirituality was naturally impacted by the cultural orthodoxy of his mother Maria, and the interests in the Baptist faith explored and pursued by his father. I heard him recalling how my grandfather read his Bible, something his Orthodox neighbors did not do. There is a Baptist church in the village, which my dad pointed to when we visited Bojarka a few years ago. “Your grandfather was interested in understanding the Bible, something he was missing in both his Catholic tradition and in the Orthodox rituals,” he explained.

The Bojarka village Orthodox church. "We used to sit
on the wooden benches, boys and girls,
and watched who came to church," my father reminisced.

My father often recollected stories of being a farmhand in East Germany, being a survivor of a labor camp in Pöllvitz, near Zeulenroda, and how the American army liberated the camp in May 1945.

"Stasiu Dabrowski, da?" Though not meeting him for
60 years, the now blind neighbor recognized my father's voice,
as we walked on the unpaved road through Bojarka.

It was barely after the war, in the city of Lodz where my mom, who was studying at a dental school, met my dad. “It was in 1946 on the 6th of March when I met your father. Your grandma introduced me to him at a warehouse where she was buying stock for her shop. He was an accountant there. Obviously he liked me and tried to invite me to see a play or a movie, or go to a café. Instead, I invited him to church, and the rest is history.”

My father continued his interests in economics, became an accountant, then studied to become a Seventh-day Adventist minister, and finally spent eventful post-war years as a church leader in Poland. My parents and the church life I experienced – together with my younger siblings, Izabella and Jan Henryk - turned into embroidery of values to be lived-by, intertwined with experiments of boldness, risk, creativity and imagination. Even after her retirement from forty years as a dental technician, my mother joined her trade union’s social action activities.

Barely 14, I recall an event within a couple of weeks of successfully enrolling in Jan Zamoyski Liceum, a well-known and historic public high school at 30 Smolna Street. The school had nearly 900 students and was located just across from our home and the Seventh-day Adventist church in central Warsaw, where my father worked. On one September Monday morning I was called-out to stand in front of a class of 35, to questioned about my absence in school on Saturday. Answering respectfully, I repeated my convictions about Sabbath observance. The teacher called for Jan Gad, the school principal, to come.

Mr. Gad, who I later found out, lived in an apartment building next to where I lived, was a tall, stocky man and his larger-than-life presence commanded respect - and for us, youngsters, exuded fear. Later, a school chronicle would refer to him as an “excellent principal,” who said that a “school is like an orchestra. You need a good conductor, good team and a good music score. A melody will then sound beautifully.” He exercised his conducting skills on me, and for the benefit of others.

Even today, I well recall being slapped across my face. The hot tears - a reaction to this sudden and public humiliation… experiencing first-hand an act of violence by someone in authority. It is etched firmly in my memory.

Among raised shouting, I still recall something said about atheism and that my unpatriotic behavior would not be tolerated.

My parents were summoned and I was expelled.

Thus ended my enrollment in Warsaw’s premier high school. I was kicked out of school but for a good, and – in my opinion – positive reason. My parents negotiated a move to a different high school, just a few hundred yards further, and still within a walking distance. My new lease on student life began at the Jaroslaw Dabrowski high school on 1 Swietokrzyska Street. Little did I know, but just a couple of hundred yards away was the Holy Cross Church where Michal Belina Czechowski, a trailblazer of international church mission, was ordained in 1843. His life story became a research project during my university days.

Church of the Holy Cross on Warsaw's
Krakowskie Przedmiescie Boulevard

On reflection, the Jan Zamoyski Liceum event was my first lesson in human rights and nonconformity. My Adventist culture no doubt influenced my decision to make a stand that day. My DNA, however, is rich with the building blocks of those who for generations before me chose not to conform – to be authentic at whatever the cost.

Reflections on my past also include numerous aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces, and dozens of friends and coworkers. To all them I am indebted for their influence and for including me when being carefree mixed with being serious and reflective. All of this, and more, adds daily bricks of faith and hope, which are also a part of who I am.