3.5.12


This is, by all accounts, a first draft. There are days when I think I will rewrite it entirely. This morning is one of them. 

But here it is anyway, because maybe a nine-page essay can make up for my seventeen-day absence, and also I want to tell you that now, finally, because of these last two weeks, I remember the last time I was brave. I want you to know that I told my whole story, Mas. I told it with my whole heart.

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ELIZABETH RHONDEAU
on being brave[1]
The shortest answer is doing the thing.
    —ERNEST HEMINGWAY


Just now, not even fifteen minutes ago, I heard a laugh I knew on the staircase. It was coming up and I was headed down. It's a good laugh, one of the best as far as I've known, open and wide and willing. It belongs to a boy, a friend; a person I should have seen and been happy to see, but instead I turned mid-laugh toe-point on that stair and leapt to catch an elevator before that laugh could catch me.
I can't remember the last brave thing I did.
Which is not to say that happenstance conversation—even in a stairwell—ranks high on the list of Acts of Incomparable Courage, but the fact is that it certainly got me thinking, mostly about lions because since the time of anything they’ve been the harbingers of heroes, the way they watch you all lithe and noble-like, completely self-possessed, confident that the second a summer wind so much as implies a new course they have only to stand and command it be still for the universe to comply. People put lions on princes’ shields and kings’ banners, atop monuments to victory, across library steps, guarding palaces, temples, tombs—and not just in one country and culture, but most. While the Anglosphere took to tacking the feline on every piece of heraldry they could shake a shield at, people in Sri Lanka put it directly to their name, drawing Sinhalese from the Indo-Aryan sinhala, the lion people, people with lion blood, that little country with big heart. Egyptians worshipped Sekhmet, a warrior goddess with a lioness head, breath that created the desert, and nicknames that could kill you before she ever did[2]. In Venice the lion presides over every cathedral and canal, emblem of the water- city’s patron Saint Mark who, incidentally, wrote my favorite account of Christ’s life, a living picture of a living man equal parts energy and humility, a portrait so striking that you begin to understand how the king of beasts is often associated with the King of Kings. I imagine Mark was infused by that same vitality. I imagine Mark would never take the elevator. Neither, for that matter, would a lion.
Samson killed a lion once, which you would think would be some sort of epic brave-on-brave ordeal considering the reputation of both parties but turns out the Man of the Sun more or less walked right up to the beast and ripped him in two. As far as Bible bravery goes, this is pretty typical. David’s got his slingshot, Joshua takes trumpets to march around Jericho, Moses keeps a staff at his side for anything from snake charming to splitting a sea in two. I am relating all this to my Thursday scripture group, increasingly panicked about my own inability to actually do anything whatsoever at all, comparatively, when I reach the real clincher: “And then,” I announce, “there’s Judith.”
If you do not know the story of Judith, here’s the quicklist: the Israelites are surrounded on every side by Assyrians who, daunted by their opponent’s hilly refuge, forgo the instant attack and decide to cut off the city’s water supply instead. This was pretty smart, seeing as forty years in the wilderness proved that Israelites certainly have a way with whining, and it’s only a matter of days before this lot is doing just that. Fed up with their people—and not immune to dehydration, themselves—the city council declares they’ll give the Lord five more days to work a miracle or call it quits.
Judith, a wealthy young widow both beautiful and righteous, sees the problem with that proclamation pretty much immediately, and tells them so, plus some. “Give the Lord five more days?!” she rallies (and I’m paraphrasing), “Give?! Who do you think you are, putting God to the test as if you are gods yourselves? Who are you kidding, waiting around and threatening highest Heaven? What kind of faith is that? Good goats, people! Get up and go!”[3] At which point Judith does exactly that, marching right past those city walls and into the enemy camp with nothing but one handmaid, the entirety of her jewelry collection, and an absolute confidence in God.
Within three days Judith has head honcho Holofernes believing that the siege has caused the Jews to turn away from their God, a disobedience to merit their destruction, and that she’s there to help any way she can, starting with prayer. By the fourth day this deal is working out nicely enough that Judith’s invited to a banquet at Holofernes’ tent, where the ensuing revelry causes Holofernes to drink (and this one’s verbatim) “much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born.” His servants, calculating the sum of a pretty woman plus their merry major general, leave the two alone. Judith, recognizing the miracle because she herself ensured it, takes a sword and then takes Holofernes’ head with two strokes to his dead-drunk neck. She and her handmaid carry their prize home in a grain bag and the next morning the Assyrians awake to an Israelite army at their door with Holofernes’ head on a stick.
Never mind that the story is likely untrue; most people call it apocryphal though the Catholics deem it deuterocanonical, and there’s enough anachronism within the first verse of the first chapter to say it’s steampunk. Still, you can’t beat that kind of brave, and with my own barley basket dependably devoid of the beheaded, I begin to wonder at what point I could ever identify with it. Lucas Cranach the Elder painted Judith like a varsity softball player, eyebrows raised and smirking, her sword over one shoulder like nothing doing. If ever I were to sit for a Bavarian portraitist, I imagine it would be just that. Sitting.
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Of course, there is a line between self-deprecating and downright obnoxious, and before I cross it I mean to say that I recognize my irrational tendency toward despair when it comes to bravery. Or perhaps it is a certain perception of bravery, this perception of bravery—the one with blood and swords and loud speeches to large crowds. This is, simply put, not my style; and while I try to reconcile the quiet confidence I feel at my core, the noise from the Judith camp is overwhelming.
I find refuge in Esther. At first, this is only because I am too distracted by her King Ahasuerus’ palace, the glitter and grace of the arabesques I imagine linking lines from floor to ceiling in a mosaic of marbles that catch the light of a desert sun but keep the heat at bay. I am enamored of the garden parties in gilded courtyards, the promise of provinces from India to Ethiopia. But it is not long before the fickle king falls fool to his advisors, Vashti’s out the door, and I watch Esther arrive to vie for her place.
She is so small and still so sparkling. Some say she could only have been barely fourteen when she entered the pageant at the citadel, but even swallowed up in the splendor of Shushan she stands out. Assigned to the care of head eunuch Hegai, she learns quickly and steps carefully, proving a personality beyond her arresting beauty that wins the favor of her fellow beauty contestants almost instantaneously; she walks with friends throughout the day and every afternoon meets Mordecai at the gate to reassure him all is well. In the morning she begins again, learning perfumes and cosmetics, fastening bracelets at her wrist and linen around her waist, preparing for the possibility of a crown upon her head.
Bravery, before it became a term indicative of the splendid and valiant from the Middle French or the brave and bold from the Italian, was a word of adornment, the collective noun for fine clothing[4]. It was something you owned to keep at the ready. It was something you put on, what you wore to face your finest moment.
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I have taken to wondering how Esther ever got into this situation to begin with. At what point did uncle Mordecai come home weary-eyed and reticent to tell his orphaned cousin that he had answered the king's quest for a queen, that he had offered her up to a task that would require she be stripped of everything she'd known and become before, that to succeed he must forbid her mention any family, any heritage in their God? When did the dark-eyed Hadassah understand that she would lose even her name, that from this moment on she was to assume every appearance of a Persian princess? She is sitting at the table, her shoulders straight. He is telling her quietly, eyes on the grain of the wood under his trembling hand. They are not eating, only listening, each waiting for the other to find the right words for the wrong situation. Was Mordecai the one to suggest Esther? He says it as a prayer, hoping it is a promise of what she will become. Or did she choose her new name, offering it in peace, assuring her uncle that she has what it will take to triumph. Esther, she says. Star.
Hadassah. Hebrew for myrtle, the white flower sacred to dreams and weddings, a five-petaled bud that opens quietly into a small floret before maturing into blossoms like supernovae[5]. In Jewish Liturgy myrtle is one of the four sacred plants of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles celebrating the harvest. Alongside willow branches, a palm frond, and the fruit of a citron tree, the myrtle flower aids in allusion to the human body—by binding all four together, the mitzvah implies an entire being dedicated to the service of God. The long lean palm stands in as the spine, with the willow forming words for a mouth and the sweet-sour citron symbolizing the heart. Hadass is the eye. Vision.
Many artists paint Esther in full swoon at Ahasuerus’ feet, a tableau specific to the Septuagint[6]. It is gratifying to note the itch that flames into indignation when I see Esther in this setting. Regardless of the edition's veracity, I am bothered that they would choose this of all moments to capture the story’s spirit; it is not fair, it is not my Queen Esther. What about her calm acceptance of Mordecai’s proposition? What about the careful diplomacy of her speech before the king? I prefer the Esther painted by Edwin Long. In the portrait, she is sitting. Two servants work about her, holding fine linen and jewels to her gilded gown. The palace is painted just as you imagine it should be; intricate, ornate, unparalleled luxury—but what eclipses this all is her eyes. Esther watches you, unmoved, and in her unblinking stare you sense not only a deep sadness and pervading fear but a resoluteness that defies them both. You know that Esther will tell the king. She will tell him everything.
To be concise, encyclopedias redirect inquiries for bravery to courage, where under etymology there follows a long list of its original French. In earliest incarnations the word stayed true to its Latin root and denoted the heart or innermost feelings as a source of fortitude. Jumping the Channel, the Middle English movement used the word to replace their original ellen, meaning strength, and become a more all-encompassing term for “what is in one’s mind or thoughts.” A friend suggests that perhaps today the word is a combination of the two, that to have courage is to tell your whole story with your whole heart.
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It is time we talk about fear, as if we haven't been tiptoeing around it all along, afraid to mention we're afraid. Because that's the trick, isn't it? We are all scared of something or other and it's going to catch up with us eventually. When it does, we have two choices. The first is to fall, incapacitated, i.e. take the elevator and leave things be. This is fine; in most situations—barring birth, death, love, and taxes—the impact is negligible. You’ll do it tomorrow; they’ll want a different style anyway; he never even knew I was on the stairs in the first place. You alone will hurt.
But you could also stand and face it. You could calculate every weakness and what if and still choose to fight, and you would learn something. You would learn that it takes recognition of your vulnerability in order to be strong, that in admitting every possible failure you make room for immeasurable growth and an inevitable joy.
It makes sense. The boy sprinting into the street to save the child toddling into traffic isn’t at that moment brimming with any sense of bravery. He’s compelled by a total terror, a fear of loss, death. It’s only after the fact that he’d call it courageous, and even then there’s a certain humility inherent to the kind of ordeal that would make him refrain. There is a sacredness to those moments where you recognize you are whole only because you are broken.
Once, at a safari reserve in the mountain climes of Java, I sat with a mama leopard over my lap. A crowd had gathered even before I walked into the cage and their whispers crescendoed as the giant cat first rubbed her jaw into my shoulder blade and then took one long, leathery lick of her tongue up my forearm. “So brave!” they whispered. “So brave! So brave!” they echoed—but instead of bravery I felt only beauty, my heart hammering not heroically so much as happily. I sat with the warm weight of the animal’s stomach against mine, watching the way she watched through one eye half-open her two toddlers stumble toward us. She batted lazily at my bangle bracelets and I scratched the hollow behind her ear and a while later I walked out past the reverenced crowd to find my friends. “You are crazy!” they said. “You are so brave!” they said. “But I wasn’t scared,” I explained, confused.
It’s right there in the straight-up right-now dictionary definition: Brave. Verb. To encounter with courage and fortitude, to defy; to overcome one’s initial fear(s). There is no bravery without a little trembling.
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We all know how Esther ends because it has become her beginning: Queen Esther, Preserver of Her People. Haman’s hanged, Mordecai’s promoted, and Esther stands at Ahasuerus’ right hand in all her bravery, in and out.
Secretly, I want to say that Esther wins this battle hands down. That compared to Judith's parlor tricks she is the true paragon of intrepidity, that her reserve is the real role model for heroine how-to. But there are merits to both ends of their bravery, and I suppose the point is that they did what they could—and, maybe more importantly, they did what the other could not. It is not hard to imagine the consequences of a Judith running rampant in Ahasuerus' court, or an Esther faced with Holoferne's sword. In the end, it is all a matter of action; to see, to fear, to defy, to do. And even then it’s not how you do it, but that you did.
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A few months after the leopard, while living on the opposite side of that same Indonesian island, I stopped by a friend’s house for the afternoon. She was a week home from the hospital with a new baby girl and the entire family met me at the door in a clamoring chorus of questions, the most immediate of which rang out above the rest: “Are you brave?” they asked. “Are you brave? Are you brave?” And I didn’t even have the half-second to wonder “Brave what?” before suddenly yes, I guess I am brave because there I was sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor with a six-day-old life in my arms.
I am not brave. It just happened so fast and so it happened, you know, and around me the conversation continued, and I suppose I must have contributed, laughed along; but to this day I remember only the weight of this sleeping child swaddled around my stomach, her belly swelling against mine, and the sublime race of my blood as it contemplated the myriad implications of this miniature human. I am thinking about what am I doing here and who trusted me or anyone with a breathing body and think about if this were a real life from my own and what happens when that does happen, and how does anybody get anything done for fear of failing and am I brave? And this, this life, a real little life, are you brave? Are you brave, Novidewi? I whispered. She blinked at the sound of her name. New Goddess. Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?





[1] See also: bold, fearless, intrepid; courage, fortitude, mettle, and fear.
[2] From the Ancient Egyptian sekhem, meaning “powerful one,” Sekhmet wielded alternate titles such as Mistress of Dread, Lady of Slaughter, One Before Whom Evil Trembles, and (probably) Do Not Mess With Me (I Mean It).
[3] Book of Judith 8:11-27.
[4] Shakespeare’s Petruchio greets Katherina “With scarfs and fans and double change of bravery,” while Milton in his Samson Agonistes describes our lion hero undone by a Delilah who “ Comes this way sailing/Like a stately ship . . . with all her bravery on.”
[5] Myrtle is also known as a tree whose leaves only release their fragrance—their inner strength—when crushed.
[6] And being splendidly arrayed, and having called upon God the Overseer and Preserver of all things, she took her two maids, and she leaned upon one, as a delicate female, and the other followed bearing her train. And she was blooming in the perfection of her beauty; and her face was cheerful, and it were benevolent, but her heart was straitened for fear. And having passed through all the doors, she stood before the king: and . . . having raised his face resplendent with glory, he looked with intense anger: and the queen fell, and changed her color as she fainted; and she bowed herself upon the head of the maid that went before her. (Esther 5:1, Septuagint)

7 comments:

A. said...

Stunning.

Lawsy said...

I think I'm in love with you. All over again.

Clairity said...

Love. So much.

lizzy said...

oh elizabeth, i want to read you endlessly.

also.

thank you.

Kimberly said...

elizabeth, just yes. you make me want to write again.

Mandy said...

speechless.

Han said...

this is really, really beautiful. thanks for sharing it.