Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Other Side of the Coin

Last week I promised I would write about what's positive in the US so here goes:

1. Language- English wasn't my first language- I spoke Latvian at home until I started school but it is my love.  I revel in the accents and eavesdropping on what people actually say to each other.  I studied other languages: French, Spanish, Catalan,a brief stint with Russian and even briefer, Chinese, but as a writer, I need doses of English.   Living in Barcelona I discovered every utterance was a political statement.  Did I risk speaking in Spanish and potentially offending a Catalan or use my far more limited Catalan and risk sounding foolish?  Often I didn't speak. The message was the language used, not communication. 

2.Nature.   There is an abundance of wildlife encroaching on suburban (and urban) America- wolves, coyotes, bears, and alligators.  In my city I see white tailed rabbits in the yard,hear woodpeckers in the morning, and see deer when I ride my bike in the cemetery.  In all the years of hiking in different areas of Spain, I saw only an occasional snake,a fox once, 2 wild boars, and of course, the lizards that plagued my dreams.  A Chinese student said alligators would be no problem in people's backyards in China- they would simply be eaten. 

3.  The Bill of Rights though I would immediately eliminate the second amendment.  And I'd stop the Supreme Court from decimating Miranda Rights and everything else.

4.  A sense of community.  I have attended more fundraisers than I can count that range from supporting a victim of cancer to compensating for the state's budget cuts in the arts.  Community struggles to compensate for the lack of a safety net or public funding.
Living as an expat you have the freedom to observe without participating in the decisions that influence your world.  Here I have taken some responsibility- I vote in every election however, small and local. 

I have thought the happiest person is one who has never left their place of birth.  There is nothing to judge it by or compare it to.  Thus, it is perfect.  If you've lived in different places, nothing quite lives up to your expectations.  Here's a poem from my chapbook.  And yes, I'm still looking for that elusive place.

                                                Finding My Way Home
The Hmong bury placenta,
close to home.
Danger rises in direct proportion
to their distance from it.

The Navajo began
the long march back
where each tree,
each stream tells the past.

There is no landmark,
to mark America as mine.

The spot that fixes me
to the ground, floats.

Lost in the birches
and pines of the Baltic,
following the storks south,
to nest in the bell towers
of Castillian churches,
I´m finding my way home.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Europa, Europa

Sometimes I'm asked what are the differences between living in Spain (which I have generalized to include Europe) and the US (specifically Buffalo which is similar to many American cities).  I've narrowed them down to 5:

1.  Universal health care in Europe (and in many other parts of the world).  You won't find the tragic story of a family losing a home or land because of medical bills in Europe.  This did, in fact, happen to my family here in the US. 

2.  Vacation.  If you aren't working freelance and you have a job (from the lowest level position to the highest), you have a minimum 4 week paid vacation in Europe.  Enough said. 

3.  Safety.  I could walk in Barcelona at any time of the night and feel safe.  There is gun control so that element of danger isn't present.  Here in Buffalo, I have personally witnessed 2 shootings (at a community center where I worked) and a lockdown (also at work). 

4.  Public transport.  In Barcelona I could arrive wherever I wanted by subway, tram, bus, or walking.  Here in Buffalo a car is necessary for shopping (most places including big supermarkets are outside of the city) or to have some semblance of a social life- going out at night.

5.  Food.  In Europe, food is still a pleasure, not guilt inducing.  Even at the largest holiday meals I never heard someone regret the delicacies they'd just consumed.  Portions aren't enormous but flavor often is.  Food is a celebration, not just fast.
     Of course, there are positive things to being here but that's for another blog.

So then, a poem from my chapbook:

What I´ve Lost  
                          Leaving Europe                  

Paths lead
from town to
medieval town,
cathedral bones
stick out,
bells toll centuries.
The solemnity
of a saint´s day
We crowd to touch
the body of christ
while drums
pound out
God´s arrival. 

Ocean jet buzz
brings me across
to America,
empire of things,
following the white
highway line
into deep deep sleep.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Secrets and Shadows

What is your deepest secret?  That was the question in an online writing workshop I attended and the very fact it was online and not in a classroom made it possible to answer and explore what made it a secret without having to share.  What is yours?  Writing it down may set you free.
   Of course, the illusion of secrecy can lead to all kinds of internet follies (Weiner) or worse.  Tom McMaster blogged under the identity of a lesbian woman, Amina Araf in Damascus.  Finally caught, he showed little actual remorse for the havoc he wreaked on the Syrians who were trying to help Amina get out of the country, the young lesbian he was planning to meet in Italy, or his wife, who apologized to the press.  In an odd twist, McMaster flirted with with Paula Brooks online, who was actually 58 year old Bill Graber also pretending to be a lesbian.  McMaster claimed the false identity was a simple writing exercise in which he was trying to get his voice.  I'd say unlikely to that.
    So keep your shadow side to yourself or express in ways that don't harm.  Don't let the ego make you feel you're above all human concerns or societal norms.  And above all, be careful on the internet.


A door clicks shut,
a clock ticks
competing with
a distant screech.
This is silence.
Or this,
Under a wave,
my head bashed
on the sea floor.
Absence of all.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Farmlands, Ceres, and a Poem

The urban farm returns us to the ancient tasks of planting and weeding with the sun warming our backs.  The idea of a farm requires a community, or a family unit at the very least. Solo you could starve and the more members the more you can grow.  Kingsolver in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" describes the year she and her family went local- eating almost exclusively from a 50 mile radius around their farm.  The now popularity of raising your own animals and slaughtering them is definitely not to everyone's taste.  Who would have thought the way I was raised in my combination Latvia/Varysbury farm would now serve as a model way to live?  Not that I'd want to repeat it.  I'd go vegetarian first.
There are some farms so remote in rural Spain that, as a friend put it, even with a family you're lonely.  That won't happen at the Cold Springs Urban Farm with volunteers digging and planting on Thursdays and Sundays.


Cells capture
the ancient rhythms of
the cycles of  Ceres.
A shovel of dirt unearths
A  moving mass of red ants,
the squiggle of fat worms.
In a Russian dasha
I’d uncover Stalin’s roses,
the corpses rising
after winter’s thaw.
Here, bricks and rocks
of a city once alive,
where lunch pail in hand,
workers lined up for the bus
that still runs on a near empty Main Street
save for a Delta Sonic carwash
and revival temples
promising God’s salvation.
It’s what remains
of my city
turned into a garden lot.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bilingualism and Melaka

Bilingualism is touted as bestowing special abilities like easier multitasking.  Most recently  Ellen Bialystok has said regular use of two languages can help delay Alzheimer's.
For me, being bilingual meant I knew Latvian without ever conjugating a verb or poring over long vocabulary lists. It meant that when I arrived at the airport in Riga the customs officer asked if I was from Latgale (my mother's province) though I had never set foot in Latvia before. 
    And my bilingual Latvian brain colored my world.  There are plants I know the names of only in Latvian and animals are always named in the diminuitive.  All nature is still infused with spirit since Latvia was Christianized in the 13th century after it replaced a pervasive animism. 

    So I could have posted an essay on the theme but I've been going through an old leather covered notebook (the gift from Eulalia in Spain, the hatmaker and singularly strong woman). 

The Straits of Melaka

The straits churn up
porcelin vases, Japanese mortar
onto the crystal calm
of a kampung beach.
Straight ahead lies Sumatra,
behind, the centuries
reminise on each street
in many tongues.
Old stories,
old anguishes
burn in an oil lamp
brought up to bed each night.