It is a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, hope, dream:
And! to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
a holy thing,
a holy thing
I met Helene in 1998, on that wonderful first WESS trip to Frankfurt. Many years later˜it was the summer of 2004, on the eve of a trip I was taking to South Africa˜I found a card from Helene in the mail, yellowed at the edges and strangely dated August 1992, with an aerial view of Cape Town, just where I was heading. How was this possible? An uncanny coincidence? Where had the postcard been suspended all these years? Well, you had to read through the whole card to solve the riddle. Near the bottom it read: "This is the card I would have sent you had I known you in 1992 when I bought it." What a lovely gesture. Helene was thoughtful like that. She was playful like that. She was faithful to her friends like that. And once in, she was devoted to WESS in much the same way she was to her friends. WESS was no different than her Africanist activities or her work for the Sierra Club, where she helped organize or led personally over 200 trips into the wilderness as chair of the Southeast Subcommittee. She was devoted to every activity she committed herself to. Helene knew no half measures, in work or in life.
In New Orleans last June, two and a half years into the cancer that would take her life just weeks later, and openly expressing for the first time that she would not beat the disease this time, Helene would not listen to friends who said: delegate, choose the three things you really want to do, and then do them and enjoy them and delegate the rest. I gave her advice along these lines, and she would have nothing of it. She said: "I ran for WESS chair because I wanted to do the work. I want to chair these meetings, and I will chair them. I want to enjoy being chair." Of course, she also wanted to make it to the WESS cruise, and she did. And she did all of these other things. I saw her after a full day of meetings, and she was exhausted but happy with her day. Actually, maybe her last official act as WESS chair was to finish collecting for Tom Kilton's retirement gift˜Tom, a past WESS chair, who like many of us had learned to know and to love Helene for being so uniquely the way she was.
In her work, Helene was always a driving force. For WESS, for GNARP, and I‚m sure for her Africanists and the Sierra Club, she sought out or if necessary invented the job most needing to be done˜for herself. When she joined the steering committee of the German Resources Project in the fall of 1998 as member-at-large, she listened patiently to the tedious proceedings, then volunteered, of all things, to draft the bylaws. When we decided to have a conference in Germany in 2003, Helene said: I‚ll do the planning. And she did, working with the Goethe Institut, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, she recruited speakers and even stepped forward as moderator˜and afterwards, she made the website that Duke still has up as a permanent record of the meeting. Helene was central to the planning of the WESS conference in Paris in March 2004. She chaired the publicity subcommittee, even though she was unable to attend herself˜that attendance being a first casualty of her illness. In all these things, she was competent and tenacious, devoted to the causes she believed in and to seeing things through to the end. Another thing about her: she always let you know things she didn‚t like˜not in a bone-on-bone direct manner, but in her own more diplomatic, graceful, face-saving way. (And, incidentally: it was your face she was saving.) How do I know this? Well, she and I planned several WESS trips to Germany together, we fought and argued˜friends said we bickered˜but we got the job done. For those WESSies who stayed in the Panorama Hotel halfway up a mountain in Partenkirchen in the fall of 2001: Helene found that hotel for you and made sure your room had a balcony with a view. She also found us the Burgmühle Hotel in Gelnhausen˜a hotel hollowed out of a 13th century mill that happens to be attached to the palace of Friedrich Barbarossa, the ruins of which are still visible. The Burgmühle is still the residence of choice for WESS visitors to the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Helene was all business and also all fun. When she wasn‚t chairing meetings or working on projects, she lived deeply and fully and extravagantly˜"extravagantly" in the sense of being constitutionally incapable of passing by any worthwhile life experience, even if it meant making complicated or daring plans at the last minute or going a whole day and night without sleep. In Gelnhausen several years ago, when she got the news that her mother had died, she knew she would need to be in Bern in two days. But in those two days, she packed in a road trip to the Alps, a hike over high mountains on a gorgeous day, and just sitting with her friends out late at night on a hillside looking down over Alpine Bavaria, illuminated by a full moon. At dawn, no doubt entirely exhausted, she was on her way by train to Bern.
Talking recently with Marianna McKim˜and she and I have talked a lot in the weeks since Helene's death˜Marianna commented on Helene's "girlish joy" as she indulged in life. Though it may not be true what Anaïs Nin is supposed to have said, that "people living deeply have no fear of death," Helene had a deep engagement with life, a romance with life, with the joys of conversation, friendship, family, adventure, and all forms of experience. She had so much life still ahead of her, but she never postponed anything until the far-off time when circumstances were just right, much less for some vaguely hoped-for retirement. No, she reached out and seized every moment, and she shared her joy of that moment with everyone around her.
The Persian poet Rumi wrote that "anything you lose comes round in another form." When I was walking away from the park where I was when I called Helene's husband Gilbert and got the terrible news, I crossed the playground and in my daze almost collided with a little girl, maybe seven years old, with a chaotic mat of blond hair on her head. She looked up at me and gave me the broadest, cheekiest grin, showing off four missing upper front teeth. For that second or two, I felt that Helene was visiting me to say goodbye.
For your life has lived
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
'Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing,
what death has touched.
Editor's Note: At Duke University, where Helene Baumann worked for twenty-five years, a fund has been established in her memory. It will be used to acquire books in her areas of interest, and to fund creative professional development opportunities for library staff. Donations may be sent to: Duke University Libraries, Box 90193, 220 Perkins Library, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708
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