Tuesday, May 23, 2017

May 23: Warm Milk, In the Midst of Life, God's Graces

Now he was indoors, next to an iron cookstove that was glowing cherry red.  Dozens of teapots were boiling there.  Some of them had whistles.  And there was a witches' cauldron full of golden soup.  The soup was thick.  Primeval bubbles surfaced it with lethargical majesty as Billy Pilgrim stared.

There were long tables set for a banquet.  At each place was a bowl made from a can that had once contained powdered milk.  A smaller can was a cup.  A  taller, more slender can was a tumbler.  Each tumbler was filled with warm milk.

At each place was a safety razor, a washcloth, a package of razor blades, a chocolate bar, two cigars, a bar of soap, ten cigarettes, a book of matches, a pencil, and a candle.

Only the candles and the soap were of German origin.  They had no way of knowing it, but the candles and soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.

So it goes.

An amazing little section that moves from the glory of a welcome banquet to the reality of war.  The Englishmen are doing their best to make the Americans at home in the prison camp, sharing their food and toiletries and provisions.  None of them know the ingredients of the German candles and soap.  Those items sit there innocently beside the warm milk and chocolate bars. 

I suppose that's what life is.  As the saying goes, "Media vita in morte sumus in the midst of life we are in death."  I have experienced this kind of juxtaposition many times.  The day my sister died, I went to an English Department meeting.  The first meeting of the fall semester.  Before the meeting, people were laughing and telling stories about summer vacations and accomplishments.  New graduate students sat in the back of the room, taking in their first glimpse of academia in action.  And in the middle of all of that, I sat next to my office mate, absolutely destroyed.

Of course, I didn't have to be at that meeting.  Nobody would have blamed me if I hadn't shown up.  There was something about being there, however, that I found comforting.  I think it was the hubbub.  The laughter, jokes.  It was a reminder that life continues.  Happiness and excitement and hope still existed.  And there were the words and hugs of close friends.  To this day, I think it was the best thing for me at the time.

Maybe that's the point of this section of Slaughterhouse.  Life and death coexist.  Perhaps they are symbiotic.  I'm not sure.  Certainly, that day in the English Department, I found myself lifted, just a tiny bit, out of my grief.  The disagreements in the department meeting seemed a little less urgent.  The friendships, a little sweeter.  The break from death and its attendant responsibilities, a little reminder of God's graces.

Saint Marty is thankful this afternoon for the brownie he ate at lunch.  It was manna.

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