The Story Series: Hope in Defiance
To really understand the rest of this blog, you’ll probably need to read the excerpt “A Spirit Broken” because it is the scene that has inspired these thoughts.
Beginning a new series is both daunting and exciting. This particular series idea has been haunting me for a week or more, but I’ve put it off. Writing is an emotional thing for me; it always has been. Over the last year or so, dubious questions about whether or not anything I have to say, in any format, is important have also slowed the creation of a new blog series. Yet, just beneath the second guessing, and the uncertainty, and the emotional part of me, a sense of excitement has lingered. Most because this is a series dedicated to the stories — at least the 11 published ones and maybe more than that — and I love the opportunity to think about, and talk about my characters and stories. Some of them I haven’t revisited in any format in years, others haven’t gone far from the forefront of my thoughts since they were written; all have given me hope. Defined, hope is:
a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen
It’s a word that’s anchored my life; at different times, it has enriched, protected and provided purpose for my world. Many say things like I hope it works out, or Hope for the best; I don’t use the word much in conversation because, for me, it’s stronger than what our culture believes. Prayer is an oft-used, but also oft depreciated verb: it’s power is too strong to be overstated. Hope is prayer’s child; it means something. And, yet, the idea for this series was originally sparked by a question: which came first: hope or courage?
Really, the amount of time my mind spends mulling over such questions is insane. Such a phrase pops into my head from nowhere and, suddenly, I can’t think about anything else; my everyday life tasks become experiments: do they prove or disprove the phrase? This rabbit hole eventually led me to looking up the definition of the word courage to see if there were similarities between that and hope. Courage is defined as:
The ability to do something that frightens one; strength in the face of pain or grief
This wasn’t good enough because I got stuck on the word strength. What is strength? Oxford says that, in addition to the “quality of being physically strong,” strength is also:
The capacity of an object or substance to withstand great force or pressure
So, then, courage is doing something even though you’re scared and/or being able to handle, adapt or deal with force or pressure.
An avalanche of memories pummeled through me. I expected the thoughts to shift eventually to Haven or, maybe, Anna; if it was a day where I felt particularly strong, maybe even Aria. But I didn’t expect it to land on Alexi from Mountains of Hope. I wrote this story during my tenth grade year in high school, after being shocked to the core from reading this book. Ultimately, Mountains of Hope follows the story of Alexi, a German girl who finds American soldiers in the woods and decides to help hide them. She is betrayed and turned over to the Nazis, eventually landing in Auschwitz. Upon and after her arrest and imprisonment, she meets some truly magnificent characters. The nameless eighteen-year-old girl who bravely defied an order to heil Hitler, though…. she haunted me for literally years. She called Hitler “Satan’s son” to the face of a notoriously cruel Nazi officer; she refused repeated orders to salute Hitler, even after her arm was broken, her face was split, she’d been pistol whipped, and knew her death was inevitable. The hardest part, though, for me, wasn’t the torture. It was the writing the end of that scene, when her spirit finally broke. There was no way she could win against a grown, calloused, evil Nazi soldier on her first day in Auschwitz. She didn’t stand a chance. But she fought back for as long as she could. Was she courageous or foolish? Even though it was her first day in the camp, Jews entered Auschwitz knowing that the Nazis were ruthless, that they hated them, and that it didn’t take much to “earn” death. This girl didn’t care. She wanted to be true to herself.
Very few of us have to face a choice like that: be true to core values you believe in or face torture and certain death. Very few of us will have to make a stand by becoming a martyr. At the conclusion of the scene, Alexi and another inmate talk about whether or not the girl gave them hope or not; they both say that they wanted her to give in because it would have meant less pain for her. It would have meant a quicker, and less painful, death. A nameless eighteen-year-old refusing to heil Hitler wasn’t going to mean anything to anyone…. except the nameless eighteen-year-old. Where was the hope?
I have been called different my entire life. Despite a childhood marred by abuse that scarred me, and tangibly impacted my entire life and nearly every decision I’ve ever made, even eighteen years after finally telling the truth, I have never felt anger toward my father. A whole host of other emotions, but, mostly, they boil down to fear, not anger. When I was in the 9th grade, I went to a school where I was actively and rather aggressively bullied. A trio of girls, the ringleader of whose name was Rachel, hated me. They made fun of my weight, which I had not yet shed. They would walk up beside me, snatch loose pages of my book, wad them up and toss them in the wastebasket. The first time they did this, I vividly remember sitting in the chair, my face flushing. I was terrified of these girls… but that was my book. My characters were on that page. Rachel and her gang didn’t understand what that was to me; they had no way of knowing how I relied and needed those characters to survive, or how close I would have been to finding a way out without them. So, even though I was terrified of those girls, I got up, walked to the wastebasket, retrieved my page of the story, unwadded it and tried to smooth the wrinkles. I did not cry when they laughed. The next day, when they put catsup on a sanitary pad, stuck it to the classroom television and then told the teacher I did it, I did cry. Because teachers also mattered to me. My teacher lacked courage; he also lacked leadership. He ignored the entire incident, and never once asked me what was happening, or if I needed help. I never thought to tell him because I was terrified of men, even more so than I was of those girls. Years later, a woman I worked with hurt me, too; I didn’t do anything, even when the fear turned to physical trembling.
Even though I chose to endure all of it, from everyone, when I didn’t have to, I also learned to rely on hope. Hope, to me, is about more than an “expectation or desire for something to happen.” The truth is: I didn’t expect any of those things to stop. For me, hope is about believing that there is something more; that there is more to the story than what I can see. Hope is about being different because I believe I am different (1 Peter 2:9, Proverbs 1:15). For me, hope is about seeing the bigger picture instead of only what someone says or does. The bigger picture for me is that I used my memories to write books that have allowed me to share and connect with others, and that has taught me that I was never really alone. That revelation gave me healing, friendships I might not have had otherwise, and the opportunity to see how God can use something horrific and mind numbingly traumatizing for a stronger, more beautiful purpose.
When I wrote Mountains of Hope, Alexi’s story, I was transfixed by the Holocaust. It literally changed my life. It made me believe that I could survive whatever came my way because, no matter what it was, it wasn’t as bad as a death camp; it was not a ghetto. It gave me hope because it put what I was going through in perspective. In retrospect, I wish I had had the courage to speak up because I could have avoided so much pain and so many nightmares. Today, when my daughters speak up about something they don’t like or that they disagree with, I am so proud of them for setting good boundaries, and for using their voices to advocate for themselves. It is powerful when you can inspire yourself, and others, toward happiness. But what about the ones that can’t? What about Alexi? She didn’t speak up; she didn’t fight back; she didn’t disobey a Nazi. What about the silent ones? Does their silence make them any less courageous, any less strong?
Remember the definition of strength includes “being able to handle pressure or force” and courage is “strength in the face of pain or grief.” Practically, for me, this means doing the best I can. Some days, this is getting up and going to speak at an event I don’t want to speak at because I’m terrified of saying out loud things that still make me shake. Some days, this means staying at home, unable to deal with smiling and doing life. During the hardest times of my life, when I haven’t had anything else to lean on, I’ve leaned on prayer, memories, and writing. I’d pray, ask Him to hold my hand and then believe that the heat settling over my palm was His hand taking mine; I’d lay awake, replaying in my head any memory of joy or kindness that had ever been given to me, and letting these memories of kindness keep me from self-harm; and I’d write. Whatever I didn’t have the words to say aloud, I’d express on paper, in the form of a story because stories were safer. I’d talk to characters that weren’t there because they made me feel less different, less alone. I’d create these graphic scenes of abuse, or pain-filled trauma, because it was knowing that other people survived trauma I couldn’t begin to fathom that told me I could survive mine. I was lucky because my writing was supported by literally everyone, and it became the only thing I thought I could do well. And, so, I poured every ounce of being into it.
You probably weren’t happy about this when you read the excerpt, and probably don’t want to hear it if you haven’t read it, but the nameless eighteen-year-old ended up obeying. Does that mean her strength, her courage, was in vain? Absolutely not. She told everyone else watching that while her spirit may have been broken, that of the Jews as a whole had not. She reminded them of the small, still part of themselves that resisted. Jews smuggled in photographs of loved ones; as unbelievable as it is for me to imagine, romances flourished within the camps and ghettos of the Holocaust, huge heroes like Oskar Schindler and unsung ones (this is written by Martin Gilbert, the same author of as the book that changed my life) worked to save lives even at great danger to themselves, the Jewish resistance was strong, even completing daring escapes from Auschwitz with the assistance of other inmates who knew the Nazis would kill random prisoners if anyone tried to escape, and, in my book, Alexi’s voice helps a boy who was buried alive escape the grave. In my own life, my way of “fighting back” is in being true to who I am. You probably won’t find me engaging in confrontation of any kind; I can be talked into backing down, even when I really care about the outcomes, even when it means giving up precious dreams I’ve held close. But what I’m letting go of is anger, bitterness, and resentment and, instead, choosing to focus on hope and joy and kindness.
When my daughter was younger, an online person tried to exploit her; she was asked to send pictures she didn’t want to send. Instead of sending them, my eleven year old kid came to me and said, “How do I block somebody from talking to me?” When I asked why, she told me. That same night, after talking to her, we called the police. They came to our home, took a report, and I stayed in contact with the detective until we were told that the accused had “dozens” of child pornography photos on his computer; while we didn’t charge him because no explicit photos were sent, he was charged by others and arrested. Years later, to this day, my daughter will talk about how we did that and how it might have helped another kid who wasn’t okay with telling her mom. I still talk about how proud of my daughter I am. When I was a child, I could have learned a lot from her. And, yet, the silent little girl Tiffini who chose to focus on prayer, memories and writing: she did more than survive; she found joy and still actively believes in hope. I am proud of her, too.
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