Saturday, August 19, 2023

burning books - for food fire

 I got reminded a few weeks ago about a time when I realized that words matter and "mainly repeating things being told in a theoretical context" might hurt someone.

I was a 20 year old living in a dorm during second year of uni. It was a dorm where we shared one kitchen on 12 rooms (each room had its own bathroom) and we also shared a 'common room' with the TV. This was obviously in the dark ages where there was less internet, modems and no wifi, and TV had a cable package that we all shared to keep the costs down.

We lived together for years, 10 of our rooms with the same people, with two rooms being more transient students. Nowadays probably called "non-traditional" students. It was the Iranian exchange student who cooked food for all of us in the fall - when he made dinner he made enough for 12 people - as long as you wanted to eat at 10pm since it took time to make the rice correctly. (My goodness the rice was amazing!)

And then there was the woman who moved into the dorm room next to the TV room with her fiancee. They were born in former Yugoslavia, and this was post 1996 with the war and the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996) the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina. I had been exposed to the war in my middle school and high school with having class mates from different areas of former Republic of Yugoslavia. Meaning we had students in the class with grandparents and other relatives in the different parts of the then civil war (e.g. Serbia - Bosnia-Herzegovina - Croatia ) and also Kosovo, which meant all of us youngsters needed to talk and get to some sort of agreement on how to address one another as it was very bad "back home for their extended families". (this is a VERY shortened version on what happened in the class)

By some reason I had forgotten some of this when I got to university. Maybe I was living high on my "I'm taking philosophy 101 and 201 and have high standards". Maybe I was just young and not thinking things through? 

Anyhooo, one night were were having dinner together and during the meal somehow we ended up talking about "things that we shouldn't do" and I piped up; "Burning books is BAD", you should never burn books".

And the woman from the room next to the TV-room looked at me, with a specific facial expression and apologetic stance and said to me "I'm sorry, I burned out books in small cooking fires for food when we were in Sarajevo. We couldn't get out of the apartments and get wood due to the snipers, so we used what we could for cooking food and warmth".

I don't think I've ever been more aware of context. I looked at her and felt so bad for making her feel bad. And said in somewhat of a sheepish voice, although she had been perfectly civil and visibly sad they had done this, "I obviously didn't mean when it's a matter of survival. It's more of a theoretical conversation from my class".

And felt like a fool. Burning books if you're stuck in a place and need to prepare food and warmth is not an issue. And I shouldn't have made her feel bad about it.

Still thinking about it to this day, more than a quarter of a century ago, that I feel fortunate this happened. It was a great moment of showing me the meaning of remembering "my experience in life is NOT ALL people's experience" and that there's so much value of knowing people from everywhere with all sorts of experiences. Like all the non-me people I've met moving around the world, changing jobs, volounteering in places and traveling and talking to random people - I always learn something new and it's always something that makes me more humble. Here's to learning more things every year of our lives!

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