Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 Story (from a prompt- found it in my files)

This was a story I dug up from a prompt- it has a certain 2012 end of the world feel to it.

“Dancing” 1,164 words

He was alone.

Last year he might have predicted things would work out this way. Someone who had been given such a gift-entrusted with it, really- would never simply continue life as it had been known before. He should have known.

And here it was again, this holiday time of year. The calendar told him it was 2012, and his life was different.

The change went much deeper than a season or being a year older. It went under his skin, as deep as his soul-if he permitted himself to believe in such a thing.

Life was like that, he thought. It could strip everything away from you in the blink of any eye. And then it could restore everything you had lost-give you even more, in fact, than you had ever had- with the same lightning speed.

He knew that now. Daniel closed his eyes and gave silent thanks. He was still here, still alive. One year ago he had been on vacation, his first time away with his girlfriend, Amy. The days were hot; the tropics lived up to their promise of endless sunshine. The most taxing decision they had to make was which seaside restaurant they would have dinner in.

In this realm of paradise, where it was easiest to do so, Daniel decided he loved Amy more than anyone on earth, more than anyone before or since would love another human being. Amy seemed comfortable enough with the goddess stature he’d imposed on her so the days passed in a mixture of suntan lotion under beach umbrellas, drawn out declarations of love, and the tangle of sheets.

The hotel activities which they had heretofore ignored included an evening of dancing to an orchestra. Amy pleaded, “Come on. When will we have a 50’s moment again?”

“I can’t dance.”

“You don’t have to. You just glide around the floor.”

Daniel put on the only long pants and shirt he’d brought; Amy looked gorgeous in a long silk dress and her blond hair piled up in a twist.

“Where did you pull that out of?” Daniel eyed her dress.

“It travels well and you never know.”

They started on the rum cocktails and like Amy had promised, they glided around the floor. The punch went down so easily, spinning around the room, Daniel just stopped short of dropping Amy on the floor. She couldn’t stop laughing. She protested when Daniel tried to get her back to her room. He got as far as the mezzanine. Amy sank into one of the sofas and immediately closed her eyes. Daniel fought off the woozy headspinning sleep as long as he could.

He woke to silence. It was light so he knew it had to be morning. Amy was sprawled out on the leather sofa with drool coming out of the corner of her mouth. Daniel tested his arms and legs to determine what part of his body was stiffest. “I haven’t fallen asleep on a chair since I was twenty.” He said to nobody as if excusing himself.

Amy was still asleep so he decided to bring her a coffee to ease her into the morning. His head throbbed as he stood up. There was a railing on the mezzanine that overlooked the hotel lobby. Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw.

It was as if all the humans below had been frozen in a moment of time. There were receptionists slumped over the hotel desks, a bellboy sprawled out next to a luggage cart. Daniel took a deep breath. What happened? He felt suspended in time, like he’d entered some weird movie set or fantasy world by stepping through the wrong door. As he stood paralized, an older gentleman came up to him and hugged him. “Thank God, I was beginning to think I was the only one left.”

Daniel took a moment to process this, “What happened?”

“Gas, a gas leak. I think.”

Daniel clutched his head. That explained the headache, but not why he hadn’t succumbed. He ran immediately to Amy and shook her awake. She was barely responsive. He and the stranger dragged her outside where she started to cough. “What’s wrong?” She looked at Daniel. “Who’s he?”

Daniel didn’t want her to see. “Something terrible has happened. We have to stay outside.” He looked at the stranger as if to give him a warning not to say more.

“It’s so quiet out here.” The man said looking around.

“It’s early yet.” Daniel said hopefully. “Should we call the police?”

“I have. No answer.”

Dan felt his entire body shake. The three walked down to the harbor where there would ordinarily be a hub of activity with fishermen coming back from a night at sea. “Radio? Do you have a radio?” Dan asked the man.

They walked until they heard sound coming from a café on the beach. The proprietor waved them in and served them coffee as if it we a normal day. He spoke a Pidgin English they had a hard time deciphering. An explosion of a transport ship had released huge amounts of carbon dioxide. “Dry ice,” Daniel couldn’t believe dry ice was a danger. He tried to ask the café owner, “Will they wake up?”

The man understood and shook his head. They left the café and went to the shipping office where an agent was stationed. “What the hell happened?” Daniel asked.

“They got the ship out to sea.” The man had tears in his eyes. “Everyone is staying indoors. You should be too.”

“That can’t be safer. Everyone is...” Daniel was still trying to protect Amy. “Can we get out of here?”

“There might be a fishing boat that can take you as far as San Jose.”

The stranger who was with them broke down and starting crying. Amy took his hand trying to comfort him.

Daniel went back to the room to collect their things and by late afternoon they were on a plane headed for New York. As the plane took off, he spotted the glow of a ship burning in the distance. On the flight they spoke little; Daniel couldn’t begin to comprehend what had occurred.

It took him months of internet searches on toxic gas and doctor’s visits to try to make sense of the explosion. In the process he lost Amy. At first they tried to find that happiness again, but it was always tinged with death, a sadness that wasn’t spoken about but present in every moment they spent together. Nothing specific marked the end; their calls became less frequent. They made excuses for not getting together.

Still, Daniel was alive while so many weren’t. Sometimes when he walked to work in the city, he stopped and looked around him. Every single person he saw would die. Yes, they would all be dead at some unknown point in the future, but for the moment, he was still breathing and that gave him great happiness.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On the future, death, and technology

     For about a week now, the news is all about Mayan predictions  and the horrific slaughter of children (not only at Sandy Hook Elementary but ongoing in many places in the world).  In the US, let's hope these deaths were not in vain and finally we can change gun ownership laws.
     On to the Mayans- it's obviously not the end of the world, but the world has been changing so rapidly over the last decade as to be almost unrecognizable.  When I was writing a novel set in the 1940's and 50's there was not much difference with the world decades later in terms of technology.  There were cars and phones and until the TV became ever present, the radio.
     All of that has changed.  I was at a party the other night and the first concern of one mother was to get the child's ipad connected to wireless.  That required the daughter of the host since she is the one who deals with technology in the household.  It makes me wish I had someone for that very purpose.   I feel like if one more electronic object enters my flat, I'll scream. 
     However, my life is probably not much different than many people's.  What I do when I get up (as soon as the coffeemaker is on) is check my computer.  My iphone is usually in my pocket or within reach.  And what does this mean?
     This means these days I'm afraid of not keeping up.  I'm a Uranian type (in astrology this is a clear archetype of sudden electric bolts of energy) and have always dealt with change but now I find I'm struggling.  I've spent hours on fixing computer glitches, installing and re-installing programs to coax the machine to do what I want it to do. 
     Technology has made the division of those who have and those who have not almost unbridgable.  There's almost no child from a poorer family who can catch up to a well off one and in France, that equalizer, homework for schoolchildren, may soon be banned.

   I'm afraid of aging in a society where compassion is lacking.  We're surrounded by crude rude media, a glorification of the military, and the surprising amount of religion that is dogmatic and rigid and far from caring for those who most need it.    

     I found a poem I'd written ages ago:


Insidious fingertips
tug on the shoulder
at the most hushed hour,
not even a sudden rap
or a sharp scream
could bring us back.

Overhead arms entwined
reach and flow
in bloodless unison.
Visages from the cracked photos
begin their march
through the brain
each with its own tale
long forgotten.

Where are the hags
with snake hair,
the men of steel impulse,
the wheel's harvest of panic?
These night shadows
are not as we imagined.
All's so quiet here.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

America- the economic puzzle and a poem

     With Black Friday behind us and the frenzy of Christmas shopping all around us ( in some shops, already starting after Halloween), I confess that I understand nothing of American retail, or the American economy, for that matter.
      In retail the same item can cost $200 or $20 depending on when and where you buy it.  A NY Times article recently compared prices on various internet sites where prices were changing hourly-  Who can make sense of any of it?  What it means is that a price can be set at anything without regard to production, labor, or marketing.  This is the market economy. 
      I find this most shocking in the pricing of books.  $27.99 is the hardcover price of "A Widow's Story" by Joyce Carol Oates.  Guess how much I paid for it in my local library (they sell donated books upstairs)?  25cents.  The library I painstakingly put together over years in Spain I could barely give away.  Sadly no one was interested.  Well, one person was- a librarian.  They are probably keeping the culture alive while everyone else is discarding their barely touched books.
      So how is value determined?  An object has to be desired.  I've been watching Antique Roadshow on PBS and am amazed at the ugly objects that have value for some particular arbitrary reason.  My first criteria for any object would be beauty but that is apparently not a consideration, or perhaps I would choose a first edition of a favorite writer.  Apparently the objects I'd choose in my life have a low value.
    The American economy itself is indecipherable.  The right's concern for lowering the national debt (an abstract concept for most of us) pales when compared to the disregard of all the signs leading to ecological disaster (and the human and financial consequences).  Which would you tackle first?
      And then, there's health care.  If you're on public assistance you have access.  If you're one of the millions of working poor, you don't.  Why would anyone work in those circumstances?  What about a living wage and a single payer health care system? 
     If you have health insurance you may feel safe.  Think again.  Longterm health care which encompasses hospice and end of life care is not necessarily covered, no matter how many years you've paid into the system. 

And a poem to a friend who died in October

The Greatest Sin

Another love lost,
one who lived this
Latvian life,
the bottle poised
over each glass,
Sunday morning
slow death.

Live free or die,
my licence plate motto
seen on the BQE.

I escaped,
my poems then,
heavy like the
bodies stretched
across the grates
at Grand Central, 4 AM
home from another night.

Loves dropped
till the only one left,
was the clear
amber of bourbon.

Raise a glass to you,
or not,
my own demons of excess

You believed Blake,
drank with Daumal
and died alone,
never finding
the purity
under this animal skin.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Power of Naming

   I had the pleasure recently of translating a film title, Myuzeigais-Kalinders into Perpetual Calendar for my friend, Janis Ozolins-Ozols's documentary about Latgale, a region in Latvia.  Names are so important.  I went over the possibilities in my mind.  Which name captured the meaning and rolled off the tongue best?
    Nuruddin Farah, the Somalian writer, gave a talk in Buffalo last week and said unlike people in Islamic cultures, Europeans (those of European descent)don't know what our names mean.  Do you?
    My name, Teresa, has never quite fit.  It comes from the Greek and means "to harvest".  Teresa conjures up images of saints, maiden aunts, and Mother Teresa in her tiny form huddled over the sick and dying.  The name never quite fit because at home I was Tereze, my Latvian name, which my father rhymed with potatos and mice. Tereze, peles, kartupeļes.Over time I was also T, Miss T, T-bird, Tree, and Tere. 
    What's your name and what's its evolution?  Now that I'm back in the US, I've returned to my name duality- Teresa and Terez.  Thanks to the US Hispanic culture, Teresa according to the Urban Dictionary is now "A bodacious beauty with full lips, luscious locks and dark mysterious eyes.
Most Teresas are sensitive, caring listeners, but they also have their mischievous, fun-loving sides."  Hey, thanks! 
    And a bit of advice from Nuruddin about naming your characters.  Start their names with different letters.  He says people read so quickly that names blur into one another.  I have a novel with an Ilga and an Olga, whose names I will certainly change.  And I have a Donots ( a common name in Latvian).  We can all imagine the problems with that one.
     Tread carefully!  Learn your names. 

Info about the film-


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Boy scouts, priests, and the powerlessness of the child

     I thought the Catholic Church had the monopoly on sexual abuse of young boys but I was wrong.  The Boy Scouts of America  recently published information (14000 pages of files posted on the Internet of cases from 1959-1985)of  young boys abused by Sout leaders and other figures in the movement.  The website got so many hits it crashed. Of course, there were many posts describing positive experiences as scouts but the amount  of abuse is astonsishing. 
    What's alarming to me is how this went on for decades and what it tells us about the place of children in society.   Alice Miller in her writings on childhood "For Your Own Good" and "Thou Shalt Not be Aware" describes the position of children as totally dependent on those who take care of them.  She talks about the triad of concealment- shielding the parents (or abusers), blaming the child, and concealing the trauma.   This is evidently what has happened here and with the church's abuse cases.  There is hope though. Miller states- "I can see the possibility of substantial improvement for patients in simply being able to articulate their feelings, formulate their resentments, and experience their rage toward their parents (or abusers) providing they are taken seriously. She describes Klaus Thomas's method of patients writing directly in letters telling about the abuse to a therpist. He successfully treated adolescents who had attempted suicide. 
     So there is an opportunity for healing these terrible traumas and perhaps putting a stop to them in the future ( the abused can become the abuser).   Much has come into the open in the last decades but  I'm waiting to hear of cases of young girls in these situations (even more powerless than boys in our culture). 
    When I was doing research for a crime novel ting I encountered so much information on abuse cases, I was almost unable to continue reading the devastating stories.  But we can take heart- childhood is past and one will never be just that powerless again. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Girls Just Want to Have Fun"

     I know what constitutes fun in my daily life- writing, reading, watching a movie, or a walk in the park.  But what's fun in a social context?  In my 20's and 30's fun meant going out to bars and drinking and possibly dancing. A friend of mine described her 20's as a decade lost to booze. 
     Awash in alcohol- yet, there was an innocence to it.  There weren't date rape drugs slipped into unsuspecting sorority girls's drinks.  Bars closed at 2AM or 4 unlike these days in Spain where the night extends past noon the following day with after hour clubs and morning clubs.  When I was teaching university students, a young woman was upset because her parents expected her home at 6AM.  I couldn't imagine what the problem could be but she explained it was a time limit set.  Her parents wanted her home for breakfast.
   Fun, well in my 30's bars were replaced with dinners at friends' houses.  There was still drinking but a different enviornment.  At some point in my 40's I tried the test to prove I wasn't an alcoholic- never more than 3 drinks at any one event.  I did this for a year, carefully weighing maximum effect per drink for New Year's or other celebrations.  I rarely surpass this quantity and despite growing up in a heavy drinking culture (Latvian) I've managed to escape the terrible effects of alcohol or alcoholism. 
   These days I'm trying to figure out what fun is.  Novelty holds a key.  A new place (travel), new restaurants, in a never ending search for sensation.  Shopping works in American for this reason but it's not what I'm looking for.  I can try to figure it out in a process of elimination.  Dates at this point are rarely fun, meals out with friends can be.  I've discovered my job can be fun.  In the end, I'm with Sheryl Crow and Cyndi Lauper.
   Or in my poem, "Another Look at Happiness."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Cold is here-when do I just give in to it?

The cold is here- when do I just give in to it?

The cold is arriving here in a chilly city famous for its winters, Buffalo.  There’s a macho sensibility with putting up with the cold.  When do you turn your furnace on? Apparently never in September, even if your’re freezing.  That’s part of the Buffalo character and it’s our conversations these days. 

“I turned the heat on ,”  I confessed to  a woman waiting for the bus.  She’s from Florida so her heat is already on.  At the dentist’s office, the assistant tells me her tenant asked if she’d turn on the heat.  Her response, “Bundle up.”  And that’s what I’ve been told more than once. Yes, this is Buffalo and even those who can afford to, wait until it’s way too cold before they succumb.  There was one October when I ran into a friend shopping who said she was avoiding going home because she didn’t want to put on the heat.  That’s how far it goes.  Another friend simply didn’t put on heat until it snowed.

Night time temps here dropped to 43 last night.  That’s about as cold as it got in Barcelona.  There we had a different dilemma.  I never had central heat so I moved through chilly spaces in my flat to get to the warm rooms- bedroom and living room.  One acquaintance from Iceland said she was colder in Barcelona than in her country.  The indoors was chilly but the outdoors never got to the point it does here.

Thankfully since the years I lived abroad, fleece and down have entered our lives.  My last foray into a Buffalo winter was spent in a secondhand Swiss army coat that reached my ankles and weighed a ton.  Before that I don’t remember feeling the cold.  My sister though said I spent winters in our big farmhouse wearing a GAA (girl’s athletic association) jacket and a wool hat. My hair was tucked up under the hat.  I remember the prickly feel of the hat on my forehead and the deep solitude of snow surrounding us, inch upon inch piling up.  The snow was the icy cover I needed to survive those years of my mother’s long slow slide into her illness and death.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

3 activities where the after is better than the during

What I like best about these activities is that no matter how much I suffer while doing them, how I feel afterwards more than compensates. The first is going to the gym or exercise in general. It’s hard to get started. As I lie on the sofa, I see the obstacles to going for a bike ride. First is a steeply pitched overpass I have to cross that takes me over a highway and back to the neighborhood where I used to live. Just visualizing it makes me reconsider getting on my bike. And that same ride is what gets me to the gym. But once I do, the endorphins fly and I feel marvelous no matter how hard I have to pedal to get up the slopes (on a bike you notice any incline more than you ever would walking). Another activity that falls into the same category is meditation. Again there’s a resistance to just sitting down and while I’m meditating, I can’t believe what passes through my head. There is the struggle to find the right position, then there’s hunger, then the barrage of thoughts that range from the utterly mundane to the actual problem solving solutions. But that’s not where my mind is supposed to be. But regardless of where I’ve been, the after effects stay with me. I’m calmer and more likely to find pleasure in the smallest details. And of course, there is giving poetry readings. Margaret Atwood has a great short story, “Lives of the Poets” in her collection “Dancing Girls.” The character in this story finds herself lying on the floor of the bathroom with a nosebleed before every reading. Well, it hasn’t gone that far with me, but there are reasons public speaking ranks high in lists of fears. It does get better with practice and preparation. Mostly I’m happy when I finish a reading and find people have listened to my work (and perhaps even applauded).

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Politicking. Can it be true? The election is only 2 months away. Can I bear any more advertising and insanity? I don’t have a TV but political ads crop up every time I open any page on the Internet. You’d think I was President Obama’s best buddy considering all the e-mails I get from him and his team. I could scream “uncle” enough already but there’s one more convention to go. This one I can bear to listen to, parts of it at least, though it may prove to be less shocking or amusing (Clint Eastwood) than the Republican one. That leads me (as so many topics do) to politicking in Spain. Political campaigns are publically financed so all the ads for the parties (once they gain a certain percentage of votes they are eligible for public financing) are grouped together at the end of a regular TV program with a warning before and after that this is political advertising. This made them very easy to avoid and since most often it was the same ad repeated, millions weren’t spent on drumming a message into our heads. Here I did hear a person interviewed on the radio about her choice of candidate for president, say she’d decide once she saw all the ads. I never heard anyone say that in Spain. This campaigning goes on right up to the bitter end. On election day I have been handed ads, pamphlets, and flyers as I was walking into the polling place. “Isn’t this a bit late?” I asked, surprised and annoyed as these were shoved into my hand. In Spain there was the “dia de reflecion”. That meant there were no ads in any form of the media. Voting took place on Sundays which gives more time to vote. There’s no scrambling to vote before going to work or worrying about long lines afterwards. So when corporations are people and money can determine the result of an election, wouldn’t it be great to have public financing and less circus?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Turnaround- the old and the new

When I returned from a trip to Spain (my second home where I spent 20 years) I was struck by how modern Europe is compared to the US. Usually the image we have of Europe is of living history but Spain manages to combine the very old with innovations I never see in Buffalo. First of all there’s public transport. In Barcelona there are trams, buses, subways, and commuter train lines. Trams could be speeding right out of the Jetsons. All of these post wait times on a screen at the stop. My theory is that if you have to wait more than 20 minutes, it’s not going to be public transport and that rarely happens. And this is at a bargain price of less than 10 euros per ten rides. Even the city beaches have screens with water and wind conditions posted for all the different beaches. I pay $2 per trip on the bus here for a relatively limited service though I must be grateful it even exists. After all, the US doesn’t invest in public transport and it’s a battle to keep it running as was demonstrated in Buffalo with the battle when the NFTA (transport authority) tried to radically cut service. My bus rides in Buffalo couldn’t be more different than in Europe. Two men greet each other at the stop with knuckle touches, one woman says into her cell phone, “You’re in my shit.” I love listening to the conversations which have little to do with the language I teach daily. The bus has a curious mix of riders who I see on a regular basis, having become one of them: a Hassidic man with his religious book, lots of closed workshop attendees, a smattering of downtown workers, and the refugee students who greet me as they get on. In Barcelona, public transport isn’t just for the poor. Recycling- in Barcelona there are 5 containers for trash. We have two here and some communities don’t even have that. Public buildings in the city have solar panels and there is the sense of growth and prosperity despite the economic crisis. In Buffalo there are people who live in neighborhoods where there is no high speed internet. TV in Barcelona is free with at least 30-40 stations and the state run channels have no advertising. In the US, without cable, TV is extremely limited. I still haven’t succumbed to buying a TV and perhaps never will. There is new architecture and all kinds of innovations in Barcelona- it seems the old quarter is pretty much sacrificed for tourists but working class and middle class neighborhoods have new public spaces. The neighborhood of Sant Marti has a green area that helps cover up a noisy highway that runs through it. One section has a water wall so instead of the noise of traffic, there’s the sound of falling water. And in Barcelona bike sharing has really taken off. I saw people of all ages and dress on bicycles. Some cities here are finally getting a system set up but it’s hard to convince a car driving population that this really works for commuting. In a country where infrastructure is old and rarely replaced I feel like I am living in a far older place than Europe.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


     After 4 years of swimming in lakes, I've returned to the beaches of the Mediterranean.  I feel the slippery salt on my skin and its taste on my lips.  I'm not bounced about in the waves or flung under, scraping my knees on the bottom like in the Atlantic.  And let's not even talk about the Pacific with its fierce waves and chilly waters.  For the most part, the Mediterranean is gentle. 
    When I step out of the water here I feel light.  When I get out of a lake something soggy stays with me, like from the mud bottom of a pond.  The salt of the sea is a great purifier, a healer in its way.  So I have one more day to enjoy if not the water, then the pastel colors of the sunsets.

   The classic song:

I have a poem from my first chapbook too.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Senora is alive and well

     I'm pleased to report that modern life in the 21st century hasn't erased the figure of the Spanish senora.  The senora is the woman who wears housedresses and a special housecoat over them to do the daily chores.  I see her leaning out of the balcony window to wipe down the endless dust settling from Barcelona traffic.  She's the one in the market shouting out, "Qui es el ultim?" so as not to be deprived of one second of attention.  She's the fighter with mala leche who won't hesitate to run over your toes with her shopping cart in an attempt to get to the fruit stand first.
     It's been ages since I've been stared at.  Here it's the senoras who have settled in for their midmorning cafe.  They look me up and down, and of course I'm the stranger here and despite the saying to the contrary "Paris, Londres, Reus", this city, Reus is not a capital of the world.  I'm not the only one they dismiss.  The elderly gentleman who approaches their table is waved away.  There's no time for him.
     The senoras have their own world- the hairdresser does their special styles and there are even glasses for them as I found out when I was trying on a pair and the shop assistant pointed at them and said, "No, no.  Those are for senoras." Yet the senoras have their dignity, something that seems to be lost in the American world where at 8 or eighty, women are all wearing the same styles.  One thing to be grateful for is the fashion of very short shorts hasn't reached the US with  60% of its population being overweight.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Change and a poem for Father's Day

              Change and a poem on the occasion of Father’s Day
What triggers the major changes in our lives?  At what point does the marriage become untenable, the roommate impossible, the job intolerable?  We go on day after day until something snaps.  Case in point-  I was never planning on moving now.  I have a trip to Spain which falls smack in the middle of summer and which means a big expense.  So what happened?  One day my landlady told me her three grandchildren (they are a bit wild- one put a hole in the wall) were spending 6 weeks with her downstairs from me.  My apartment suddenly became a place I had to escape from.  I could have coped with the visit; after all, I’ll be gone some of those weeks but this was the crisis point.  All along I’ve been aware that I need more space- that I can’t spend any more time looking at the walls of this flat but I’ve resisted.  I easily could have been stuck here for years.
   We all resist change but it’s better to adapt and play a part in it than face a possible earth shattering event that really shakes up our lives.  I remind myself as I sit in the chaos of bags and books.
    Years ago a Peruvian shaman told me I had a “genetic muy poco vista” and that I had more genetic material from my father than my mother.  When I told my sister- she said she knew that.  I think I inherited the physical, the wanderlust, but fortunately not the character.

Father’s Day a la Sylvia Plath

Winter black and white
weighs down
until green spring erupts,
he searches the barn for the kittens,
his touch tames.
He shells peas,
lines them up in equal piles
for me and my sister.
The storms lash out.
There is no peace in this house
Wind whips through
tightly closed windows.

He’s the one I search for
in shapely dark madness. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Moving and exile


I  am sitting in a room that’s in the process of being dismantled, bit by bit, box by box.  Where does moving fit on the scale of life’s most stressful events?  Somewhere up there, after death and divorce.  My many moves are bookended by long periods spent in the same place.  17 years in the farmhouse in Varysburg, the small town where I grew up, and then 15 years in the atico flat in Barcelona with its terraces and views of the sea as a distant blue line and Montjuic, the city’s hill off the port. 
Since my American adventure, I’ve lived in three places- my sister’s home in Atlanta, a sublet in Buffalo, and my present apartment where I’ve been for, hard to believe but four years now.  Four years of living alone.  Surprisingly except for one brief stint here when I was in college, I have never lived alone.  Now that I’ve done it, it seems easy.  Solitude doesn’t weigh but there is that occasional need to find a witness for the daily details of life. 
So now, encumbered by a lot more stuff, I’m preparing for move 4.  I left Barcelona after twenty years with three suitcases and a few boxes of my papers which I sent.  How is it possible that I have amassed more stuff in four years here than in all that time abroad? 
My first trip away from home to Paris for my junior year abroad only required one suitcase and a small carry on.  With every subsequent voyage I’ve been weighted down with more stuff.  I have my books (heavy, aren’t they?), DVD’s, papers (way too many), CD’s, and more clothes than I could ever wear.  What do I really need?  Comfort is a way of life in America and every object is designed for that finality.  How much can I shed?  As I look around the chaos that is now my pre-move life, I’m going to find that out.

                                                                        “You can’t go home again.”  Thomas Wolfe   

Cross the yard
to open the gate,
my mother stands
at the door.
Inside, the grey carpet
with faded roses,
consumes my breath.
The mismatched couches
 are covered over again,
a paint by numbers seascape
hangs on the wall.

I reclaim these rooms,
the medicine stained floor,
my father metes out drops
so he can breathe.
His voice, the backdrop
to my dreams,
as he reads aloud to my mother,
their secret night life.

Stripped naked
I try again to enter,
13 steps to my bedroom,
Petal pink, a girl long buried,
still wants the Barbie dress up world.

My mother’s closet holds two suits
from her past life,
strappy heels, red leather,
thick ankle straps,
I touch and identify,

She never wanted to be here,
in this farmhouse in America.

Yet she greets me,
we share for a moment
this white house,
this undersurface dream space.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reading Moby Dick is a subversive act...

What does a whale represent to us?  In the 1850's the whale was a leviathan, a creature of massive proportions that inhabited a hidden universe and provided products of beauty and necessity (oil and ambergris).  For us, it's one more being in danger of extinction that "sings" and is part of a controlled world that holds little mystery.  Imagine confronting this huge being with small boats and harpoons.
   Two elements make Moby Dick subversive.  For the reader to understand the novel, Melville provides all the possible background information available to him in his day.  From a treatsie on the color white across cultures to classification and anatomy of the whale, this novel educates the reader.  And all of this requires DESCRIPTION and Melville is a master.
    Description has fallen out of favor.  Writers are routinely instructed to eliminate adverbs and all excess words.  Are we all victims of Hemingway's terse prose?  Or is it a lack of attention span?  Take the 6 word story as an example.  6 words are used to express an entire story and there are contests to do this.  Yes, it can be done.  But why?  We have a glorious vocabulary in English, one I particularly appreciate since English wasn't my first language.  A literary magazine I recently contacted now only publishes flash fiction.  Is this the path literature is taking?
    The other  subversion is that man is not the measure of all things as we've been led to believe.  What I liked best about Moby Dick was the ending.  Despite all foreshadowing and warnings, I was surprises by the ending.  Decades of the perfect Walt Disney type ending left me aghast and then thrilled by the last line of this novel.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Human Trafficking

Human Trafficking

On this beautiful spring day I am reading about human trafficking triggered by watching “The Whistleblower”, a film based on true events about a female police officer in postwar Bosnia who uncovers a trafficking ring involving UN officials and contractors.  The conditions of the young women who are lured abroad with tales of money and excitement (one can only hope that doesn’t happen as much now) are worse than we can even imagine. 
Mostly trafficking equates to female slavery.  Woman are still chattel in many parts of the world.  Even Turkey, a modern country, reports many cases of honor killings.  But let’s examine those UN officials and contractors.  What did they tell themselves to  make their actions possible?  Don’t men have sisters, wives, and daughters? Is it just another case of the brutality of humankind?  Woman is the other, and once you turn any being into someone separate from yourself, or even different, anything is possible.  Humans will never evolve until women regain a place of value in all societies.  It is precisely the femaleness, the feminine that our culture has deplored and tried over and over to eradicate, even to the point of making our own mother earth unable to sustain life.

The Whistleblower
Purge- the wonderful novel by Oksanen

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Motherhood May 12th and a poem

The first love of anyone's life (reciprocated or not) is the mother.  These days mothers are called tiger moms and are expected to be perfect.  The very archetype of mother is so potent as to obliterate all other identities a woman can have.
  It's a role I didn't choose in this lifetime but motherhood is something I can visit on this day, May 12th, the birthday of my mother.  This was my first love and one that hasn't diminished in the years of her absence, now more than 30.
   Here's a poem:

Ma-Ya  (Not That)

No one will ever say -she’s the mother of my children, head bowed in homage.  Yet, I am the mother of many dreams and a few scattered kindnesses.

I have been the bitch of a litter of seven puppies, the taker of portrait photographs with the requisite puff of air, and a maple tree sending forth a seedling borne on air that settled in a small patch of earth and lived 100 years. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Catholicism- My Take

     I haven't had too much of a problem with Catholicism, not after a dream I had when I was a teenager.  In the dream I was trying to kill a robot nun as she crossed the lawn.  My uncle finished the figure off for me.  It obviously represented my freedom from the doctrine, much of which I absorbed by half-listening to sermons.  One sticks in my mind because when I was a kid, it made absolutely no sense- something about tight sweaters and short skirts.  It was the 60's and these must have been dangerous.
     Years of living in Europe kept a benign image of the church alive.  I loved cathedrals and ritual.  One of my first published poems was "Lighting Candles is a Solitary Act".  But living in Spain led me to the Inquisition and when I visited the Vatican I was horrified.  All of this wealth was what my parents (on their limited income) tithed for, not the mention the poor around the world adding to the collection basket what they couldn't afford.
     So I was one of the people who sought the spiritual elsewhere. I don't think I ever considered the church as having much to do with my ideas of spirit.  There was Buddhism, astrology, and Jungian psychology to explore, mostly on my own.
     This week two things came up which show once again how disconnected the church is from reality.  The Pope reprimanded nuns for being "radical feminists" and focusing too much on social justice.  Kristof and Down address this brilliantly.

     And on Friday I took immigrants and refugees to a health fair.  Catholic Charities (which no doubt runs some great programs) had a stand dedicated to what the church does best- sexual education.  There was information on natural family planning.  If that works for you, I'd love to hear about it.  That was the most innocent.  One pamphlet denounced Planned Parenthood as promoting promiscuity while another warned that condoms cause cancer.  Something to do with talc. Where do they get their science? I was grateful most of the attendees didn't have the level of language to understand this dangerous misinformation.  Dangerous for people who deserve accurate information on how to protect themselves from disease and how to have fewer children if they so choose.
   Where to go from here?  What's next?  The writer, Anna Quindlen has formally renounced the church.  I'm coming closer.  The only thing that keeps me is the hard work of those chastized nuns.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The European Debt Crisis- My Take

A friend of mine in Spain travels often from Barcelona to the Priorat, a wine growing region about two hours from Barcelona.  On two Saturdays he experienced the horror of someone leaping onto the tracks and committing suicide.  Suicides are hitting the European countries that are subjecting their citizens to severe austerity measures.  Even the American press has published articles on the subject:
Of course, reading about a suicide and witnessing one are worlds apart.  The same way that from a distance we are viewing the debt crisis in Europe from the perspective of what the media wants us to see- the result of corrupt spending by lazy wastrels.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In my years in Spain, I had longer work hours and higher quality jobs than I have had here.  Not to mention the healthcare.  Here I was recently quoted a health insurance plan from Cobra that was $200 a month with a $10,000 deductable.  Insane!  Another indicator of the cost of US healthcare was a price for eyedrops I was prescribed for conjunctivitis- $460.  Needless to say, I didn’t get them.
What stands between workers in the United States and the Chinese economic model (no rights, no pensions, any work schedule up to 16 hours a day) ?  Europe, of course.  Europe has a social safety net and workers’ rights but these are being threatened.  We are fed the propaganda that the European worker is bloated by those social benefits. Universal health care, reasonably priced higher education, and pension plans are requirements for a society, not luxuries as we are being led to believe.    Meanwhile, public workers in Spain are taking large pay cuts and we’re not talking about high level politicians, but teachers and office workers (some of whom earn the equivalent of 1000 euros a month which would be about 1300 dollars).  That would be below poverty level here.  These are the people bearing the cost of the housing and banking scams that originated on Wall Street and spread throughout the world.  
The consumption that identifies life in the US is not present to such a degree in Europe.  Though there is wealth in Western Europe, it is never as conspicuous or as obscene as it is in America.  Sometimes I feel like I’m witnessing the decadence of the last years of the Roman Empire.  Turn on reality TV and be prepared to be disgusted as the “wealthy” bicker and consume.  You’ll see them rent $20,000 a month apartments in New York or take private jets to Morocco.  In the Sunday section of the NY Times there was an article called, “Bridal Hunger Games” describing a woman who spent 4 days on a feeding tube so she could fit into her wedding dress.  Decadent or what?
And, my tax rate is higher than Mitt Rommey’s.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The American CIty

            So far this year, I’ve visited three American cities, four if you count my Christmas holiday trip to San Francisco.  The first city I lived in (and visited frequently as a child) was Buffalo, NY.  Over the years I watched its downtown transform from a busy place with department stores, shops, and restaurants into an after work ghost town unless there’s a special event taking place.   That’s increasingly the way an American city functions- it’s a place to escape from to a suburban home or it’s a place to go for entertainment like seeing a team play or going to a play.  The idea of including activities with living space has largely vanished except in larger cities like NY. 
            In a smaller city like Buffalo many essential needs can’t be met within the city.  My neighborhood has a café, restaurants, and boutiques.  For all practical concerns, I have to take a bus.   Contrast that with my neighborhood in Barcelona, called Gracia.  It had all of the above plus a supermarket across the street, a gym minutes away, and a medical center and cinema all within  walking distance. 
            “City Life” by Witold Rybcznski addresses how American cities have changed, and why, and how some may even thrive.  All the American cities I visited required a car thought if I lived in one of them, I’m sure I’d find a way to manage without one just as I have here in Buffalo.  I think that’s because they’re older cities (Philadelphia, Charleston, and Pittsburgh) all created before the car was the measure of all things.  I might not be able to manage in the newer cities like Phoenix and Dallas.  Let me know if I’m wrong. 
            In any case, I’m still clinging to my image of what a city should be, perhaps formed by the second city I lived in, Paris.  Need I say more.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Semana Santa- a re-visit to my post on the theme

Religion, Myth, and Magic*

The writer, Chris Albani says you can come back from torture, rape, violence. He should know having survived Nigerian prison, not once, but three times. Resurrection is the theme of this week.

That leads me Palm Sunday. I was raised Catholic but for decades only attended church for weddings and funerals. Since I returned to Buffalo, I reconnected with an old friend from my UB teaching days who had since become a priest (progressive, of course). Mass is familiar from a childhood of mouthing the words. Yet there are some differences: no male pronouns are used and the Holy Ghost has become the Holy Spirit. I’d forgotten Palm Sunday is a solemn celebration. It touches on the modern themes of betrayal (Judas) and abandonment (my God, why have you forsaken me?)

Albani was also raised Catholic which might help account for the theme of redemption in “Graceland” where as he puts it, “everyone is redeemed”. From there he went to Buddhism. As my Korean student who attended a Buddhist university put it, in Buddhism, you become the saint. Instead of the “I am not worthy to receive you” you have a pervasive basic goodness and the goal of an enlightened society (in the form I’m familiar with). As my Iraqi student says there is no God. You’re on your own. And my question is where is the witness that has been part of our modern therapeutic culture?

In the end, Albani tattooed the traditional Igbo deities on his arm. Besides Catholicism, I was raised with the distant remains of Pre-Christian Latvian culture with spirits inhabiting all of nature. My personal gods are my grandmother and a polar bear. I like to think of the polar bear as a totem animal from the far north of my mother’s ancestors. My grandmother is the muse of my first published poem.

Yet, I still love the saetas- the songs of love sung to the statues of Mary (or Jesus) in the processions of Andalusia and the shouts of “guapa” (pretty) when she passes. The processions go on all night and the drums are heard long before they appear. They can be solemn or the waiting time for the procession to appear can be spent in a bar. My apologies to the faithful.

I love the geese of the 16th century Barcelona cathedral and the L’ou com balla- the egg dancing in the fountain on Corpus Christi.

Ritual, tradition, and repetition. Does one ever really escape them? Or even want to?
* the title of an anthropology class I took

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Perfect Job

What's your perfect job?  Mine would be sitting at my computer and writing each day.  Well, since I do that but still have to earn my living, I am now on the eve of attending the TESOL conference. TESOL means thousands of people from all over the world, hundreds of talks, and very few jobs posted. What's always shocked me is how a profession (ESL) that is filled with low salaried jobs holds its yearly conference in pricey hotels with high conference fees.
 The last time I went began my Spanish odyssey, first with an interview for a job at ACHNA in Madrid.  Gary interviewed me and he was so charming, I immediately took the job though there were others that were higher paying.  He was a great director and unfortunately was lost to AIDS. 
   Madrid was one of those defining moments in my life.  Many of the friends I made stayed with me and the job teaching adults English was great with an endless supply of stimulating materials. Madrid itself was fun too but I moved on (and stayed) in a more peaceful Barcelona.
   I don't expect any life defining moments at this conference except to reconnect with old friends and look and see if that ever elusive perfect job is out there.

TESOL- teaching English to speakers of other languages

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Old First Ward

The old first ward in Buffalo is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city.  It's where the Irish first settled when they came to the city to work in the grain mills that are now imposing hunks of metal shading the small houses.  Since the neighborhood is still home to Irish bars and neighbors, it's the place to be for St. Patrick's Day with its annual neighborhood parade.  Nothing could be more welcoming than seeing the mix of floats commemorating deceased community members, police and firemen unions and a variety of other organizations that remind that Buffalo is still a union town even in these times.
    Attending the parade makes me realize everyone except me and my friends know everyone in the vicinity, and greet each other effusively as they march by.  I have a flash of that feeling I know so well, that of not being a part of a place.  And that leads me to the disturbing story of a Congolese refugee and his family who moved to the First Ward and were victims, not once, but twice, of arson. 
  A long time resident of the community was indicted for both incidents of arson.  There were the usual expressions of disbelief, and fortunately, great sympathy for the victim who had survived the horrors of Congo only to suffer in the First Ward. 
   This crime tainted the sweet camraderie and charm of St. Paddy's Day in what is called, the old neighborhood.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day

Today I was pleased to read my friend Raquel's FB post about IWD in Latvia- she said women were carrying flowers on this beautiful day.  In China, women have the day off!  Here we are moving backward in a frightening way.  The state of Virginia just passed a requirement of ultrasound for woman seeking an abortion.  And we all know about the horrors of Rush Limbaugh.  So much hatred  against women. 
   This is a poem of witness I wrote that appeared in my first chapbook:


Past knots and tendons,

I look

through bone

and see,

in centuries past-

my face shrivel

as flames rise higher.

The point of a sword

slashes my belly.

Today, head to toe in black,

I barely breathe,

walk the required

steps behind.

The open hand

of my husband

reddens my cheek.

In  India, China girls

form the Greek chorus,

and chant,

Never born,

Never born.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The business of writing

     I'd like to ask my writer friends how much time they spend writing and how much time do they spend on what I call the "business of writing".  I long to get back to the unfinished short story or the possibility of a poem.  Instead I'm focused on promotion, sending out work to perhaps be published, e-mails, preparing for poetry readings, and spending too much time applying for elusive grants. 
    Of course, I'm aware that I shouldn't complain and I'm lucky anyone would read my work at all.  It's just that I'm overwhelmed.  How did they do it?  Those writers who put in a full day at some office and came home to write long into the night.  I can't shake off the day jobs of which I have two and I need some time to do nothing when ideas may appear.  And I don't even have a family.  So I'm impressed by those of you who manage.   Any hints?
   After my trip to California, I've become fascinated by earthquakes.  Here's the Chronicle's page that shows how many and when they occur.
   I have a poem 18 minor quakes that perhaps I've posted before but need to edit.  Did I mention editing on my list?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Low Country- a visit and a bit of the past

     Long stretches of marshland extend in all directions from Charleston's harbor and the surrounding barrier islands  The landscapes are marked by water, church spire skylines, and the beauty of the Atlantic with miles of beaches illuminated by glorious sunsets.
     Charleston itself is called the holy city for its array of churches reminding us of the religious past (and these days, present) of this country.   Houses in town have the porches we imagine when we think of southern mansions, but because taxes were based on frontal space, porches often face the sides of the buildings giving an off center feel to the streets and an insight into economics, even of the wealthy who could afford such structures.
     And that leads, as it always does, to slavery.  The slave museum stands on the site of the slave market of Charleston, in operation until the 1860's.  As recently as the 1960's it was occupied by a car dealership.
     Here you can peruse copies of the records of sales with listings of human beings with their traits (good breeder, half worker, cotton and rice worker, butler, healer) and the cost of each.  Shocking to say the least.
     Not to forget that New York City had a bustling slave trade into the 1700's and in the 1990's construction in the financial district unearthed a slave cemetery.  Slavery is the dark spot on all of America but it's here in the South that the marshes remind of the slaves struggling to clear this land for the rice and cotton plantations.  Slavery is still present in the beach resort where not a single African-American face appears.  It's in our hearts as the landscape leaks the blood of those who came before us.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Siberia and me

"Why did our father grow up in Siberia?" my sister asked.  One more unanswered question in his life filled with more unknowns than knowns.  My father died long before we were curious enough to ask such things. 
     All I knew was his childhood took place long before the Stalin deportations of Latvians to Siberia.  In one week in March of 1949 over 27,000 Latvians were sent to the gulags, including my mother's brother.  For an incredible book on gulags, I recommend "Gulag" by Anne Applebaum.
    So back to the question.  Enter Google where I actually found some answers.  The Latvian colony of Lejas Bulana settled in 1858 (aka Bullanas) still exists in Siberia.  It was rediscovered in 1975 by filmmaker, Ingvars Leitis who traveled there never expecting to find the language and culture still existing.  Roberts Kilis wrote his anthropology dissertation for Cambridge University on the Latvian community there.
  Bits and pieces is how I cobble together a past for my relatives.  Latvia was under the rule of the Russian Czar who offered free land to those willing to make the trip to Siberia.  And it turns out Catholics in Latgale (the province and religion of my father) had great difficulty in acquiring land in other areas because of discrimination. 
   So my grandfather must have been an adventurer.  Even today any journey to Siberia is hard.  Imagine it with a family a hundred years ago.  What I do remember were my father's stories about his childhood, included here in this poem.

His Life

Ed hopes his father
had a secret life.
My father had many;
two wives before mother,
a son left behind.

The war years
spent in Europe´s darkness,
in uniform,
rooting through trash
for food.

His secret languages
Russian, Polish,
we imitated in childish babble,
I learned sister, pillow, dream.

Siberia of childhood
giant summer fruit,
green winter lights
He brought to a farm,
half a globe away,
leaving a pile of unknowns
a lifetime to decipher.

Pre-sales for my chapbook are now starting:

Monday, February 6, 2012

Memories, Dreams, and CG Jung

Saw the film, "A Dangerous Method" which gave a most unflattering view of CG.  Thought the film had to have been made by Freudians who have mostly fallen out of favor except for when Jeffrey Masson analyzed Freud's seduction theory in the 80's.  Anyway, there's nothing sympathetic about Jung in the film.  He has no financial worries because of his wealthy wife who worries about being attractive to him while he carries on with a brilliant patient.  Freud (in the film) claims that relationship was the reason for his famous break with the man he had considered to be his successor.  I wonder if that is true or just the writer of the script taking liberties.
    Despite the portrayal, I've always been a fan of Jung and how he dabbled in the esoteric and found meaning in connections, not to mention the archetypes that make sense of our unconscious.  And that leads me to dreams.  I found an old journal from when I was in Malaysia and a dream  I 'd written down- I was in a small plane crossing the creek in Varysburg (the small town where I grew up).  I wanted to pay the pilot but only had foreign coins. 
    When I read that, I thought of how much meaning it held.  It took me two decades to return to this place where I began this strange and beautiful journey. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Where is home?

    One of the themes of my writing has been the concept of home.  An astrologer might say it's because I have an emphasized fourth house or it may simply be status of "spiritual refugee" that is part of my  inheritance.  This week I lost another home- my ex partner is moving from the flat where I lived for fifteen years, the second longest I've lived anywhere except for my childhood farmhouse.   I have attached part of a grant application.  For those of you who might say, how personal and indulgent- I agree, but then again I just attended a Pecha Kucha event where almost every video and every piece of art included the artist him or herself.  That will lead me to another one of my pet discussions- what is art?  But that will be for another time.  And this is an essay!  Don't judge too harshly.

When I returned to the United States after many years living abroad, I found myself in Buffalo, not more than 30 miles from Varysburg, New York, where I grew up.  A search for a home that took me to Europe, Asia, and South America has come full circle. My parents were refugees fleeing from Latvia after World War ll and they ended up living in Western New York.  As a result of their experience, I have internalized the refugee nostalgia for a home that no longer exists, an idealized view of a home we are all searching for, whether it is an unattainable fantasy or the tangible place we construct and painstakingly decorate. 
Home in its infinite visions and possibilities has been a defining element of my writing and by extension, so has finding my (or my characters’) place in the world.  My first homeland existed only in a dream space.  Sleighs floated silently across snowy horse paths, saunas were built on hillsides next to lakes, and wedding celebrations lasted for five days straight.  This was the Latvia I grew up with, cobbled together from my parents’ stories and which probably never existed.  This place was my starting point.
     Growing up on a farm combined with the customs of a Latvian speaking culture gave me a unique view of the world.  That combination in the pre-ethnically diverse US gave me the role of an outsider looking in.   There was a bright shiny life that as a working class child of immigrants who had an eighth grade education, I didn’t have access to.  Yet it is precisely this background that has allowed me to live simultaneously in two different cultures and be open to experiencing many different lifestyles.   This has served me well whether I’m writing about immigrant life in the US or life as an expatriate in Spain or looking at how things work in small town America.  In my novel, “The Whisper of Silver Birch” I include dainas, the ancient poetic form of Latvian folk songs and in “Summer Scaffolding” I use details from my apartment  in Barcelona.
     I am a writer with deep roots in that farmhouse in Western New York, but one who has had the opportunity to move with ease in different cultural contexts and languages. I speak Latvian, Spanish, and French (fluently at different points in my life). I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in Colombia, Spain, and Malaysia and have used many of my personal experiences as a starting point for my fiction.  These places also came to represent home for me. 
       Presently, I teach adult refugees and I hope I can provide them with some of the linguistic tools to be able to make their home in the United States much as my parents did.  I hope they will be able to tell their stories in a way that gives them acceptance and respect in the community. I have come full circle in the immigrant experience, now working with refugees.