We are all witnesses

100_0442Who would have thought that when a group of murderous men attempted to kill a fourteen year old girl that they would have made her a global heroine and given her cause world-wide coverage?  Malala Yousafzai is extraordinary.  It’s hard to believe that a school girl should have become such a threat to the oppressive policies of the Taliban that they should try to suppress her and her campaign for women. And so heartening to know that two years later, in spite of her terrible wounds, she is living in peace in England, has written a book, and is still campaigning for the right for all women to an education.

Her poise, beauty and intelligence as I watched her fluently explaining the situation on TV and how she came to be such a campaigner was so moving, that it seemed even the interviewer  was nearly in tears. The next day she had tea with the most powerful man in the world and fearlessly asked him to stop killing her people with drones – that anyone should have to ask – since when has it been OK to kill innocent citizens of countries who are allies – and is reported to have told the President that it was counter-productive and caused resentment. A simple enough deduction that one would think the highly educated men in the White House could have reached for themselves!

But what is so exciting about sixteen year old Malala is that she is free to spread her message and to resist oppression and tyranny. She can speak and be heard. Her country and her people listen, and it’s only extremists who want to silence her.

Hers is such a contrast to the life of another inspiring and famous woman who was not free and who had to keep silent. Anna Akhamatova was the beautiful Russian poet whose husband was shot in the Stalin’s terror, and whose son was in and out of gulags until 1956 for the crime of having the parents that he had. In her long poem ‘Requiem’, which took four years to write between 1935 and 1940, she wrote these lines, having resisted the temptation to flee to the West like so many creative people whose lives were also in danger:

No foreign sky protected me,

no stranger’s wing shielded my face.

I stand as witness to the common lot,

survivor of that time, that place.’

Later, when the poem was published in 1961, she wrote: ‘Instead of a Preface’.

‘In the terrible years of the Yeshov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I said: “I can.”

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.’

Simply because she was a poet, whose writing the Soviet authorities condemned with the usual epithet – bourgeois – Anna’s life was perpetually in danger, and she was banned from most activities. She could have fled, but she stayed to be with her people – their witness – her only weapon, silent passive resistance. Active resistance would simply have meant the anonymity of being one of between forty and fifty million Russians shot, starved or worked to death in the gulag – the common fate of Soviet citizens under Stalin.

Poets met secretly, they wrote their poems in secret, and read them to each other. They each memorised them, and then the dangerous and incriminating pieces of paper were burned. So Anna became a witness. Witnessing was the only thing she could do.

And when Stalin died, and conditions eased, she emerged and she described. Her poetry was published and she became famous, and an inspiration to all who had resisted, and a lesson to those who came after her. Her words meant that no-one could forget.

I’ve often thought about Anna, and how witnessing matters so much to each person who suffers – somehow, to have a witness dignifies and validates the suffering and mitigates the loneliness. And women seem to have always instinctively been witnesses – witnesses at birth and death – witnesses to war, witnesses to life. Watching, validating, and by the very act of being there, loving.

It’s an unsung gift, but when I listen to a friend who works in a hospice, I realise that it’s one of the greatest gifts. Witnessing requires no words. It’s commitment and unspoken love, whether it’s Anna Akhamatova witnessing her country and her people’s agony and being there for it, or the mother, the daughter, the sister, the friend who watches through the night when the great life dramas of birth or death are being played out.

And often it isn’t even as dramatic as that. My daughter was driving a lonely immigrant who had no family, to hospital for a breast cancer operation. As she got out of the car, she saw the woman’s face. My daughter rushed round to her side, and stood, arms around her, just holding her, tears flowing down both faces. Frantic, she called out to the door attendant – “is it alright to park here?”  “Of course,” this beautiful man replied, “it’s for people like you”. They stayed holding each other until the friend felt strong enough to go inside – my daughter with her.

And one image is forever imprinted on my mind. I was sitting on a bus with the rain pouring down, dusk just beginning to darken the overcast skies. Something made me look out. There was a man I had got to know on a series of consciousness- raising courses. I hadn’t seen Brian for a while. He was sitting in the gutter in the rain with his arm around the shoulders of a drunk. Being there. Witnessing.

Food for threadbare gourmets

Trying to keep to my resolution to simplify life, and stop giving useless objects to people who lack for nothing, I’m making a jar of lemon curd for a friend who has a birthday. I’ve collected over time some of the nicely shaped Bon Maman French jam jars with red and white check screw- top lids – perfect.

Juice three lemons, and grate the zest. Put in a saucepan with ¾ cup of sugar, 150g of cubed butter, and six free range or organic beaten eggs. Stir over a medium heat until the butter is melted and the mixture has thickened. Don’t boil, take off the heat before it does. Pour into sterilised heat proof containers, and leave to set. Cover and keep in the fridge, and it will last for a month or so.

Food for thought

To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence.

Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated  without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

E.F. Schumacher 1911 – 1977 – discussing Buddhist economics in ‘Small is Beautiful’. Schumacher was an international economist whose thoughts on economics evolved to cover many aspects of environmental protection, as well as the preservation of the  integrity of small local economies.





Filed under cancer, cookery/recipes, culture, history, life and death, literature, love, philosophy, poetry, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

54 responses to “We are all witnesses

  1. Lots of food for thought here, Valerie. I thought of Corrie ten Boom as I read this. I also thought about small things we can do to show that we care for people, things that don’t cost much but mean much–gifts of time, of listening, of prayer for someone, of a gift of homemade food, a card or letter. I like to do these things and this made me resolve to try to do them more often.




  2. I couldn’t agree more. We are all witnesses and we need to live mindfully for that very reason. I found it interesting to look up the etymology of witness; it seems the word relates to knowledge, to martyr, to care, thoughtfulness, remembering, mindfulness and memory. It’s a big word; an important word. I am glad your daughter was there beside her friend.


    • Yes, she had literally be-friended her, when we discovered how desolate she was.. didn’t know her until then……


      • And how lovely it is to hear that word ‘be -friend’.


      • Gallivanta, reading your comment on Rebecca’s blog, I wrote this, which you might be interested in answer to your question do modern soldiers ever say great things.:
        Yes, some modern soldiers do say great things…Col Tim Collins, who had been one of my brother’s young officers said to his troops when they got the order to advance into Iraq:
        ;” Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood, and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there… you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqies. Don’t treat them as refugees, for they are in their own country…

        “If there are casualties of war remember that when they got up and dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves… let us leave Iraq a better place for having been there…”

        Sadly, others didn’t live up to his words…


  3. Amy

    I heard Malala’s speech on TV, she was calm, poise, determined, and courageous, and is only sixteen years old… Such a moving story of your daughter and her friend. Wonderful post, Valerie.


  4. Luanne

    I don’t mean to sound sarcastic by saying “thank you, Valerie,” but your post made me cry.


  5. Luanne, that is probably the greatest compliment you can pay a writer, to know that her words have reached another heart. Thank you so much, I find it very moving.


  6. Thank you, Valerie. I have been thinking in the same way these past couple of months. We are all witnesses to history – our history. And we must act with courage, resolve, hope and compassion. And the greatest act that has the most power – listening.

    “Wild honey smells of freedom
    The dust – of sunlight
    The mouth of a young girl, like a violet
    But gold – smells of nothing.”
    ― Anna Akhmatova


  7. Beautiful poetry thank you Rebecca…


  8. Behind the Story

    Thank you Valerie, for a thoughtful, positive post.

    I’m reminded of another Russian poet and writer, Irina Ratushinskaya, the author of Gray is the Color of Hope, a memoir that I found very inspiring.

    My daughter spent two years in Magadan in the Russian Far East. Visiting her, we looked at some prison barracks (part of the gulag) and then stopped in at a very small museum containing momentos of those who suffered and died there. It was the first time I felt so strongly the duty to remember and witness to those who suffered.


    • Thank you so much, so good to hear from you… love that title ‘Gray is the Colour of Hope ,
      how moving it must have been to visit that museum… those times and places seem so unbelievable to those of us born at other times and in other more fortunate places.
      Thank you for your lovely words


  9. What a moving post Valerie. All these little beacons of light in a dark world show we’re not totally without hope as a species. The tale of your daughter and her new friend was particularly touching.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx


  10. David , thank you so much, so good to hear from you… I like that ‘little beacons of light’…. that song ‘Always look on the bright si-i-de of fings,’ sprang into my mind.. who sang that?… Anthony Newsome or some other cockney chap???
    Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the post…


  11. Valerie, you always give me much to think about and savor. Today, you have brought me to tears. Thank you for reminding me we are not without hope, not lost.


    • Dear Val, thank you for your response from your heart. It feels like such a gift… and yes, I think you’re right – we are not without hope, even though we can’t see the way ahead… but wonderful souls like Malala seem to know their way….


  12. Dearest Valerie,

    Through you, I see with clarity places, objects, times and events that you have seen throughout your years. I learn the lessons you have, experience joy, heartache and wonder. There is no greater gift, in my mind, that a writer can give to the world, and you do it well.

    Mahalo for bearing witness to life.




  13. I am crying…yes crying…as I read. I cried through your post, and I cried as I read each comment and your reply. we so often forget everyone is here, just like us…trying to be the best that we can be, I am ever so grateful for your gentle spirit and for the fact you are willing to share it with us…sometimes as a huge risk…Thank you so much for bearing witness to life and to those us who read your blog.

    I love your spring time yard…the photo is perfect for this post.

    In love and gratitude


    • LInda, thank you as ever for your wonderful loving words of support. It’s one of the great gifts of blogging to know that beautiful friends like you are there, and that we do think alike about the things that matter..including dogs!!!
      Thank you again, dear friend, and I’ll be writing later –
      with much love Valerie


  14. Valerie, thank you for this beautiful and inspiring piece.


  15. What a wonderful post!!! I love the story and poetry of Anna Akhamatova.


  16. What a meaningful and beautiful post. Even a we speak my son flew from California to New York to spend three days at a course led by the Dalai Lama. Your words remind me of Budda’s teachings.


    • Ronnie, thank you so much for your generous beautiful comment. I’m glad that you enjoyed the post. It meant a lot to me. How wonderful that your son is going to spend three days in the company of the Dalai Lama. Hope you get some of the energy when he gets back…with love…


  17. Wonderful. I am so glad I found your blog. It was a well needed reminder that the spirit of the people will prevail as long as someone cares enough to speak out. Thank you for the post.


  18. Dear Valerie,

    I came here on the suggestion of a mutual friend, Valentine Logar. I read this long post – I don’t usually read long posts due to time constraints but I had to read this. Now, I fully understand why Val speaks so highly of you.

    Yes, I’ve been following Malala’s journey via the media. She is blessed to have a father who apparently influenced her and remains quietly in the shadows. One can only laud and wish all good things unfold before this angel of hope for the women of her country and the down trodden everywhere.

    Good advice she gave the people in the White House. But sadly, I reckon, her words fell on ears which are attuned to the military-industrial lobby.

    Malala lives a life worth living – a life worth emulating.

    Peace and blessings,


    • Dear Eric,
      Thank you somuch for your wonderful comment, and kind words. I take it as a great compliment that Val mentioned me to you,. and I’m delighted of course that you felt like reading my blog. So good to hear from you.

      Yes, I feel the same about Malala’s father, he is a wonderful man too, so modest and un-assuming, and yet such a devoted father and wise teacher to his amazing daughter. I loved your phrase ‘this angel of hope’.
      I’m looking forward to exploring your blog, and wish you too, peace and blessings,


  19. Wonderful post Valerie… indeed food for thought… IAM thankful that there are many courageous people that we hear about and are inspired.. because of this the balance tips more to the side of love now… but still a long way to go… so we continue to report, inspire and just be an example to others… Barbara


  20. Thank you Barbara, lovely that you came and commented… yes, I do believe the balance is tilting, and it’s so hopeful to hear the good news…like Malala !!


  21. Malala’s is such an inspiring one, thank you for expressing some of what I feel. But it is your linking and interweaving of a story that works wonders. I hadn’t heard about the poet Anna Akhamatova , so thank you for spreading her words more widely.


  22. Valerie – what a beautiful post! You take me right into the heart of all those small, and yet fundamentally huge – and vital – moments of witnessing. The courage, compassion and fortitude of those witnesses amongst the turns of world and personal events, hold the threads of life and community together. They are so inspiring. Malala is such an extraordinary young woman. What an inspiration to everyone she is. Thank you so much for your riveting, richly insightful and moving portrait of Anna Akhamatova. Hers is a story I had not heard before. I will follow your links to explore her poetry. It’s so important to honour and to keep alive that witnessing which cost so much, and demanded so much bravery. I love how poetry has such power. How, though it had to be destroyed on the page, it lived and bore witness in people’s hearts and minds, nursing the spirit and fortitude of all, until it was able to be openly expressed.

    Your personal stories of your daughter, your friend who works in the hospice, and Brian giving comfort – all so, so moving. People can be so kind, so wonderful.

    I heard a true story on the radio recently, in which a woman told of how she was collecting for a cancer charity outside a London tube station. She was opposite a homeless man who was busking for coins. When he saw her, he insisted on putting in her collection bucket all the money in his hat that day. It was all he had. And yet, she said, so many other people were hurrying by…
    Moments like that give us all so much pause for thought…

    Thank you again for this wonderful, deeply thoughtful post…



  23. Melanie, what a wonderfully, enthusiastic and generous comment… I loved everything you had to say, and especially your use of the word ‘fortitude’, which to me is such a deep word… somehow so much more than just courage… a deep, faithful, holding on in adversity… which is the hardest thing of all…
    What a glorious story of spontaneous goodness by the busker.
    I remember years ago, going house to house collecting for some cause for Quakers, and was so saddened by how mean comfortable houses were, and how giving and cheerful the poor houses were…
    And I still see it happening … miserliness is one of the seven deadly sins … but I could write a book about that !.
    I wish we were near enough to have a cup of coffee together – it would be such fun !!!


  24. After reading this… swallow and remember to breathe. You even capture the True Colour of soul!

    I forget how I found you, but I’m grateful. You stretch and challenge in such welcome ways.


  25. Amy – thank you – what a beautiful comment, I’m very touched.
    I remember how we met – I’d written a story about the books that shaped me, including Black Beauty, and you replied, saying, I think, that you hadn’t been brave enough to read it… any I felt you were a kindred spirit XXXX


  26. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    An excellent piece, Valerie, and well written right down to the blue lips.


  27. Hello Valerie, wonderful words about Malala Yousafzai. She’s utterly inspirational and it’s immensely encouraging to see her being able to positively influence the most powerful people in the world with her words alone, something the murderous bigots of the Taleban can never achieve with their guns and bombs.


  28. Michele Seminara

    A wonderful post Valerie. I shall have to look up Anna Akhamatova, I am ashamed to say I was not aware of her!


  29. Wow. I’m glad I finally read this. Why is it that the most obvious things are the most elusive to our politicians? What a burden we have placed on the new generations…but if they are anything like Malala, they are more than up for the challenge. Gorgeous, inspiring post.


  30. We heard the words of Tim Collins and they made me weep. What humanity, what leadership.
    And Malala, what strength of character now in one so young and what potential. If only she is listened to, really listened to….
    Thank you for another moving and informative post. I love to make Lemon Curd too and to give it as presents. Happy days to you and yours. It’s good to have you back! 🙂


    • Sally it’s lovely to be in touch again, thank you for your lovely comments.
      Yes, Tim Collins was such an inspiration to his men, so sad that the American reservist with a grudge was able to ruin his career, and that the army has lost such a great officer.
      Yes, Malala – what a great soul and a gift to the world..
      Happy days to you, dear Sally.


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