1999 was a torturous year – for the country where I was born, for my family and for me.
It came at the end of a torturous decade.
All through the 1990’s, Yugoslavia was going through a viciously bloody civil war, different republics trying to disentangle themselves from the deeply interwoven web of the united commonwealth.
We had family members, people we loved, respected and cared about, on all sides of the chasm. We had family in Serbia, in Croatia, in Bosnia. Some were Orthodox Serbs, some Catholic Croatians married to Orthodox Serbs, some Catholic Croatians married to Bosnian Muslims, some Bosnian Serbs married to Bosnian Muslims.
We heard alarming stories but didn’t know what to believe. The only thing easy in this unintelligible mayhem was passing judgment.
In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia for more than three months. Sometimes, when I called my uncle in our old village or my aunt Angelica in Belgrade, I heard screaming air sirens on the other side of the line. I cried here and they cried on the other side of the line. So close, and so far away.
All throughout this heartache, my mother was disintegrating from the afflictions of Alzheimer’s Disease. Losing her mind, losing her hold on the terrible reality of what was happening to the people we loved. Or maybe, hers was the easier passage.
Many evenings, after I had tucked my children under their warm comforters, while my mother walked around our house because she had mostly lost her ability to sleep, I read about Antarctic explorers.
I knew very little about either man. But once I started reading, there was no turning back.
That year, 1999, I read book after book about these visionary, gallant and intrepid – but also unrealistic, romantic and foolish adventurers. These men were trying to understand, to conquer, an environment where the rules (or the protection) of civilization did not apply.
At the very beginning of the 20th century, Scott lead two expeditions in a chase to win the race to the South Pole. They made it to the pole (pulling their own gear on sleds) in 1913, only to discover that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen (who used dogs to pull his sleds) had gotten there first.
On the way back, starving and exhausted, Scott and four of his companions froze to death.
Improperly dressed and ill equipped for the ruthless frigidity of this frozen world, they had spent previous months collecting data, keeping scientific and personal journals, and playing classical music while gathering for well-mannered meals (often of penguin blubber and nothing else.)
Earnest Shackleton, another restless adventurer, led a number of expeditions himself – at one time trying to cross the Antarctic continent from one side to the other.
Things didn’t go according to plan when his ship, Endurance, got trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed, forcing Shackleton and his men to abandon it and seek shelter on an inhospitable, isolated island.
While his men waited on the island, Shackleton and five companions made a fifteen day open boat journey, then walked across mountainous South Georgia island to the secluded whaling stations to seek help.
What appealed to me most about these stories was the fact that the amoral cruelty of this numb, icy, isolated and indifferent world did not destroy the humanity of these explorers.
Scott and his men died. But they died holding on tightly to the cords of civility, broad-mindedness and compassion.
Shackleton survived his Gargantuan journey and saved his men. A few years later he died of a heart attack on a ship in South Georgia while trying to commence another Antarctic journey. His wife had him buried there – in the icy wilderness.
Sometimes, the only way to survive the present is to look to past for comfort. Stores can heal.