I was curious to read this memoir, Treading Water at the Shark Café by Lyndon Back, to learn more about events I remembered very little about. The author tells of her mission: to travel with an open heart through the war-torn countries that were once called Yugoslavia, in what she calls a “ministry of witness.”
When the wars in the former Yugoslavia began, it was barely a blip on my radar. The first Gulf War had garnered my attention, but only peripherally, as I embarked on a professional career and finished graduate school. I was aware of the war in Bosnia dragging on, as I loaned a professional grade video camera to a friend to go and bear witness to the turmoil. Even so, I didn’t feel connected to the event. Through Ms. Back’s compelling account, I found a connection to these events.
Not only is this a story of Back’s spiritual commitment to peace and justice, but also a narrative through which she exposes her vulnerabilities. About her decision to leave her family and job, she writes, “This isn’t a career choice. It is a calling.”
As in many memoirs, there are unexpected twists and turns. Back discloses how a sexual assault she experienced as a teenage went unreported. Here is yet another voice added to the growing list of men and women who are courageous enough to come forward in their adult years to shine light on the problem of sexual assault on children. In current media events, the debate rages when victims of sexual assault pit themselves against those who abuse power. In her life’s work, the author gives a voice and standing, a place-at-the-table for those who are powerless.
The area about which Back writes is a complicated region of the world, making it difficult for those in the U.S. to understand the cultural and political dynamics. How many Americans retain anything from high school World History classes about the Ottoman Empire, or even World War 1? The Yugoslavian Wars seemed to be a muted nattering in the collective conscience of American minds, generated from the evening news. I wonder how different it would have been if the students involved in peaceful resistance had direct access to social media?
I liked this author’s down-to-earth revelations, even with remarks like, “It was uncanny how doors opened. I couldn’t explain it.” Her story is believable because I identified with her. She steps into the unknown with few answers, quite dramatically, to follow her heart to travel to this distant region.
In my mind Back did heroic work, but she comes across as a humble human with doubts and frailties. “In my less anxious moments, I thought I was on a religious journey,” she says, “a quest for that feeling of connection with the mystery of the universe. At other times my confidence evaporated.” When she asks for support and reflects upon her conscience, she offers, “This emotional pull is from a place in my psyche that has been in the shadows for a long time and it needs attention.”
Her story is a lesson about the chaos that ensues when countries are ethnically and ideologically divided. She details the historical moments of the region to give the reader adequate context. You don’t need to be a scholar or activist to learn from and enjoy this memoir. Back will lead you to see how she found her calling. She invites you on the journey as she faces internal and external fears. In her world. Influenced by the tenets of the American Friends Service Committee, peace is given a chance.