Monday, July 16, 2012

The Privilege of Nature and Writing

“When someone comes in from outside, with the wind in their clothes and the cold on their faces, then I could bury my head in the blankets to stop myself thinking: ‘When will we be granted the privilege of smelling fresh air?’”
 –Anne Frank

Reading these specific words with a group of 8th grade students for the seventeenth year in a row stopped me in my tracks this year.  I hadn't noticed this specific line during any previous reading. This year, after reading several articles by Richard Louv and his ideas about Nature Deficit Disorder in children, the concept that fresh air could ever be considered a privilege seemed unconscionable. Anne's sentiment grabbed me by the collar and I began to see other references of the importance of nature in her life:
"From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind," she wrote on February 23, 1944. "As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be."
In 2012 we see many examples of nature falling out of our lives because of our own choices to do things indoors, and in many cases, as a part of a sedentary lifestyle.  I have fallen victim to this unhealthy habit. And yet, air is all around us when we are free to enjoy it.  Anne Frank’s reference to the suffocating denial of fresh air reminds me that their spirits, souls, hopes continued to suffer even through the kindness of their protectors or the support of one another.  In a very real way, as basic human rights were stripped away by the actions of the Nazis, human beings gasped and reached for whatever thin lifeline they could find.

In the hope of feeling...of being...human again.

Of particular interest to me is Anne’s suggestion that a human could sense, whether through smell or sight, wind in an article of clothing or the cold outdoors along the complexion of another face.  This speaks to the deprivation of joy in their lives.  Anne, in one breath of text, elevates nature as beautiful, necessary, and therapeutic.

Imagine how much fresh air could have nourished Anne and her Annexed family.  At the same time, consider the therapeutic seconds we burn absentmindedly. Anne is a symbol of the millions who relied on the protection of others to preserve their humanity, but could anyone in hiding really have felt safe?  The fact that their protection was constantly in question removed another basic human need--feeling safe, secure, comforted.

I’m reminded of a woman I followed with my mother.  During a Susan G. Komen cancer walk, we walked together on a Mother’s Day to honor the memory of my mother’s dear friend and my godmother, Camille.

As the crowd moved from the Ben Franklin Parkway and into the downtown neighborhood streets, our eyes caught a survivor, a fighter.  The late morning sun dappled shadows, soft like watercolor, through the chestnut trees all along the neighborhoods lined with three story colonial row homes, clean brick facades and cobblestone walkways. In the middle of it all the careful steps of a thin woman caught our eye in the crowd on a narrow asphalt street worn thin and grey with time.

I could not accurately tell her age.

Unsteady between two young men, perhaps her sons, with her thin arms draped across their shoulders like a wounded solider, spent and dependent, he legs trembled forward in a steady rhythm.

Her body gnawed on by cancer looked weak with strained movements.  The marks of chemotherapy, diet, and a long daily fight clung to her pale, tight, sunlit skin.  Yet, that sunlight gave me pause.  That morning sun on her face taught me something.

She laid her head all the way back as far as a head will fall.  Her eyes remained closed.  And the sunlight, white and gold, radiated across her face—she smiled, a long, firm, fixed smile.

She smiled.  She could barely walk and she smiled.  She smiled in the sun and clung to the thin lifelines of affection for her sons and the therapeutic reality of the sun.  I found comfort in Anne's words as I read them and this, for me, iconic image of a woman suffering arose in my memory: “I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all that suffer.”
Burned into my memory, I often go back to this image of her. I never knew what to do with it, but Anne's words have forged its meaning for me.  Neither my mother nor I could keep our eyes from that woman, even though we tried. Breathing with some labor through her nostrils, everything else dissolved for her in that moment—it was as astonishing as Anne’s use of the word privilege.  That sunlight that day probably did not cure that woman’s cancer, yet in that moment, all moments were about the privilege of sunlight upon her face.

While disease wreaked havoc on her fundamental human needs, the affection we all crave also literally held her in the form of the two men I assumed were her sons.  In this I think of the affection Anne craved from her father, Otto, and lost; the affection never found with her mother, Edith; and the brief torch of affection shared with Peter Van Pels.  We’ve all read Anne’s frustration with her own failing to find the affection she desired, “Mother says that she sees us more as friends than as daughters.  That’s all very nice, of course, except that a friend can’t take the place of a mother.”

In the documentary Anne Frank Remembered, Peter Pfeffer spoke about his father, Dr. Fritz Pfeffer.   Writing letters to his new wife Carlotta (delivered by Miep Gies ) served as “a thin lifeline” for him.  It provided a semblance of mental health where there would otherwise be none.

Consider the source of Anne Frank’s and Fritz Pfeffer’s heated disputes and angry explosions.  While much has be made that the generational differences between a young girl and an older man were the cause of their venom, I believe that their anger ignited over the use of the one desk in their shared room—the desk Anne used to write in her diary (many times about nature); the same desk Fritz used to pen his affections and fears to Carlotta in privacy.  They both fought for the safety of their lifeline.

The lifelines in the Frank Annex were few.  From Anne’s perspective, none understood her. Fights among all the residents percolated over shared responsibilities and cooperation and space and time for expression was precious.  Considering the families made a point to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkha demonstrates that clinging and fighting for every last fundamental human need becomes part of the daily routine when they are stolen from a human being.

Pfeffer was a great outdoors man; however, as his son suggests, taking him and confining him to the Annex was like “caging a bird.”  The isolation away from nature, the affection in his life, Carlotta and his children, ate at him.  And these indignities consumed Anne as well as they devoured the basic human needs of the millions in hiding or awaiting their fates in a concentration camp.

Anne Frank’s need for open air and sunlight isn’t anymore unique than the needs of the woman battling cancer on the Ben Franklin Parkway.  We all need nature to survive.  Yet, when our fundamental human needs are stolen, whether through a ravaging disease or the insidious and murderous cruelty of another human being, our bodies will fight for and grasp whatever human need is left.

If our fundamental human needs are worth fighting for when stolen from us, what is our excuse when we are healthy and free?

In the documentary Anne Frank Remembered Holocaust survivor Sal de Liema credits Otto Frank with keeping him alive by forcing him to use his imagination and indulging with Otto in leisure:

Mr Frank and I…he said we should get away from those people…if you talk all the time about food and everything then your brain is going to go…physically we may not survive this…we should try to survive mentally and try to talk about things…like say, do you remember the melody of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven and then we start singing to one another just to get away from this fear just to get our brain thinking about other things…we started talking about Van Gogh, Rembrandt, ‘did you ever go to the Van Gogh museum?’…and all those things just to get out of our minds, to get out of this here…and it really helped, I think…”

Our humanity, under great stresses, reaches and stretches for the nourishment we are capable of using in order to revive our souls.  The cancer survivor scuffled along, supported by affection, with her face tilted towards the sun.  Anne returned again and again to look at the chestnut tree just outside a small window in the loft. In a study published in a journal of scientific research, Science, R.S. Ulrich found that even brief exposure to nature, as in a view of nature through a window, helps people heal more quickly after surgery. Additionally, it found, as so many who work in a room without windows understands, working in an environment with windows improves work performance and increases job satisfaction. Anne’s chestnut tree, her talisman, fell to disease a few years ago.  Saplings of this symbol of the Holocaust have been planted in various locations throughout the world; yet, trees are all around us.  Fresh air is all around us. The privilege is ours.

How do we honor the privilege of nature?

Anne’s writing served as the frail lifeline to the natural world—a world where she missed the cold rain seeping into her socks, the cold wind disheveling her hair, and the scent of winter permeating her coat.  For Fritz Pfeffer, writing provided a weak glimmer of affection and belonging, but affection and belonging nonetheless.  His Carlotta was far away and safe; as far as he knew, his children were out of harm’s away.  Fritz was alone and human; he fought for his lifeline.

Since starting this piece, a new interest for me is researching the use of expressive writing with cancer patients.  The woman I saw on Mother’s Day did not write in that moment, but I wonder if expressive writing could be another lifeline for those fighting disease. The American Psychological Association published a collection of articles on expressive writing, The Writing Cure, edited by Lepore and Smyth (2002).  As I hoped, one study cited a reduction in physical symptoms and medical visits for cancer survivors (Stanton and Danoff-Burg, 2002) if they incorporated expressive writing into their lives as a daily habit.

How we honor the privilege of writing? 

The lifelines are all around us: fresh air, a view of a tree, the freedom to make writing a daily habit. We don’t need to wait for disease, a natural disaster, or a horrific violation of human rights to indulge in the privilege of writing and in the privilege of nature. We have plenty of reminders in our daily activities and in the books we read.  Or in my case, a book I read for every year for the last seventeen years—my failure to read Anne Frank’s diary through the lens of nature or the lens of fundamental human needs kept me from recognizing the gossamer suspended around each of us all our lives.

Through the lens of nature, I saw Anne Frank's diary in a way that overwhelmed me, quite honestly. Her words give me hope for myself as one who should make immersion in nature and writing a daily habit:
“The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then, and only then, can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity.”  

Works Cited

Anne Frank Remembered [videorecording]. Culver City, CA: Columbia Tri-Star Home Video, 1995. (Video Collection)

Lepore S J and Smyth J M, (2002) (eds) The Writing Cure, American Psychological Association, Washington

Ulrich, R.S. (1984). "View Through a Window May Influence Recovery From Surgery." Science, 22, 42-421.

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