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.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Slows down to a crawl plus poem

Life slows down to a crawl- almost a week of a particularly virulent cold.  My activities have been reduced to lounging on the sofa watching Downton Abbey, one of those dress up dramas that can't compare with "Upstairs, Downstairs".  The predictability of the plot is reassuring and perfect for lying around. The one day I ventured out to the store I was behind an elderly man and realized I was buying the same things he was (orange juice and milk). This slow pace could be a foreshadowing. 
In naturopathy a heavy cold is considered cleansing.  Our teacher said illnesses in children often resulted in growth spurts.  I had a growth spurt of a different kind, new thoughts came to me, things I had discounted or put aside and now can re-visit.  Does anyone remember the TV series Ally McBeal?  I always found the baby that appeared in scenes ridiculous but I have found myself having similar dreams.  Often there are neglected kittensthat I've forgotten to feed.  Last night it was a baby I found on a countertop.  I asked it if it was hungry- I was pleased to tell everyone it answered yes in English.  I fed it a bottle and spared it a few moments of play.  The symbolism is the baby represents some part of yourself you have not been nurturing.  At least in this dream, I gave it something to eat.
    So today, I can emerge slowly (even reluctantly) from this space I've inhabited for so many days.

Here's a poem I wrote ages ago but have reworked for some drama.


            Amphibious we swim
            some of the time,
            emerge sticky, dun colored
            from the murk of our ancestry.
            You are too much mine.
            Erased by foreign lands,
            too much acquiescence,
            for us there is no tomorrow,
no promise of children.

Your suit hangs,
shoes polished to the sonance
of Paris streets.
Your country, Congo,
is left behind.

At night,
the distant drip
of blood
seeps behind our walls.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Do things work in America?

I'm no stranger to bus travel and could relate grueling bus stories from trips in Mexico, Latvia, Colombia, Greece, etc. etc.  But America?

Buffalo- Toronto, Saturday morning.  First surprise.  I arrive around 6:15 (early as usual for any form of tranportation).  Already there was a line at the gate.  First clue- the man in front of me was ranting about Greyhound's terrible service.  I said, "Oh, no, you're a pessimist.  The bus will be here at 6:45."  The line grew longer and the crowd started to get impatient.
     Yes, there was a bus but the driver got out and announced, "Room for 3 passengers."
    I was shocked.  The image of American efficiency was something I always held dear in my years living abroad. 
    An hour later, another bus arrived.  This one was shoddier and older than the first one.  People started to push and I told one man he couldn't cut in line (as if this was my job). 
     Finally most of us got on- about fifteen people were left behind to who knows what fate.  Next, the driver went to get a coffee while we all sat waiting, too broken to complain.
   I'd chosen this particular time because it was supposed to be a direct bus.  Well, our first stop after the border (another ordeal) was the very first town, Fort Erie, where the driver picked up mail.  We stopped in every other town en route.  At one point there were passengers standing- something that I thought wasn't allowed.
    My return trip was quite different.  The bus left on time and though it stopped everywhere (my ticket was for a direct bus), I was mentally prepared.  By the time we got to Niagara Falls, it was just me and the driver.  I got a spectacular view of the Falls lit up at night.  He was from Montreal and we discussed gun control, elections, and Quebec referendums until we pulled into Buffalo.  When I got off in Buffalo, we shook hands. 
    My idea of American efficiency was shattered but I had a sense that humanity wasn't lost even in this impersonal world.

My bus poem which has appeared on this blog before:
The Lake

Something in me
loves a bus.
Starting at birth.
my father brought me home
in early November snow
on a bus.
There was Marilyn, circa 1956
all Bus Stop glamour,
and in Cleveland,
the sleek Greyhound sign,
recalls Edward Hopper
and the dusty 1930’s.
 “You have a blessed day”
the new goodbye as I board
wondering how to do just that.
Ashtabula, Erie, Buffalo
and all points east,
their vowels satisfy.

Something in America
so hates the city,
it bleeds out
 a slow death
 of the  light
and sound
and life
of this lake.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Rebirth, Change, Possibility

Like almost everyone else, I'm evaluating my habits and trying to restart my life.  After all, it is January 2nd .  So far, I've already made it to the gym and avoided having my lunch while lying down on the sofa.  And despite a small slide with chocolates (Christmas leftovers), I'm feeling good.  I returned from a wonderful trip out west- so much beauty and kindness!  So 2012- let's see what happens. 

Here's the link to a story I wrote on the theme:

  I even found an old poem which shows New Year's a theme I have always been attracted to.  I have a new poem too- still in progress for a later posting.

New Year

Erase the year
with alcohol dampening
the brain and
as the custom of this foreign land,
race the block
at midnight,
empty suitcase in hand,
assuring all voyages succeed.
Against the night sky
filling with debris and rockets,
I cling to an age-old illusion,
rebirth-change- possibility.