Saturday, December 28, 2013

Slow down! Stop! Review! Don't multitask!

     Could these be my New Year's resolutions or simple admonitions? Three recent occurrences have led me to these conclusions.  First of all I lost a chance for a good job because I hadn't reviewed a cover letter closely.  It included a sentence I'd put in for a different job leading to the interviewer's first question- "I'm confused.  Why did you say you'd relocate to Atlanta when the job is in New Jersey?"
      Next a short story of mine was published with the character's name as Dave in one sentence, followed  by Doug in the next line.  Embarrassing to say the least.  It almost happened in another story that's due to be published but fortunately my sister caught the mistake.  Impatience is winning out and wreaking havoc. 
     It's the end of the year and I'm pondering a couple of other decisions.  I had a short story that with a couple of tweaks could have been published in a well-known literary magazine.  I didn't make the changes.  Now I wonder, was I mad or just lazy?  The same thing happened with an essay.  They both were published but in lesser known journals.
    As I face other questions with big repercussions my advice to myself and everyone else is in the title.  With that in mind it'll be a new year with good decisions and better editing! 

Here's a story that was out awhile ago.

Dr. Lee



It wasn´t my favorite class, a survey of Chinese history with its endless dynasties of too similar names.  We´d finally moved into modern times and were now stuck in the early 20th century.  Dr. Lee was Korean, a delicate man with wire rimmed glasses.  He taught all the Asian history courses, no doubt because of his ethnicity.

                I counted up credits and found I could graduate faster in history than anything else so I was filling semesters with requirements.  There were two tracks: one was for potential Social Studies teachers and the other, was  filled with boys and seminars on war.  I don´t even know how I found myself in it, probably my advisor thought it would keep my options open though, for what, I had no idea.

                There were only two bright spots in the whole business.  The history of Brazil was filled with Brazilians students aiming for an easy A and they talked, making it come alive.  I read Jorge Amado, and imagined Bahia, with coconut custard and tropical drinks, far from the chill of the Northeast and the winter that had just begun and would never end.  The other was a fatherly professor of American history who claimed the Singer sewing machine was the most perfect creation ever made. He lamented those transformed into decorator tables.  I could relate since my aunt sewed all her clothing on one with its metal foot pedal that kept up a smooth rhythm. 

                The rest of the professors did what I´d been told never to do, which was to read from a paper.  It was how they generally filled the fifty or eighty minute blocks.  Dr. Lee was one of them.  I got to the room right on time and settled in.  It was November and I had the routine down, sitting towards the back, but not too far.  I had a glimpse of the outdoors from the window at the top of the basement room.  A fat guy came and sat near me, smiling. Once he followed me out of class telling me the desperately sad story of his mother going blind from her job as an x-ray technician.  I managed to avoid him without being rude. 

                In the beginning there were about thirty of us, now down to ten.  Some of the students no longer bothered with notes.  They sat staring into space or an occasional beep of something electronic alerted us to their presence. I felt a little sorry for Dr. Lee, tiny in front of the room, facing us all.

                He arrived right on time with his regulation black briefcase.  He popped it open and sifted through sheaves of papers.  What would it be today?  It looked like he was making a decision.  I hoped for the spice of the opium wars.  He stood at the podium, reminding us of a test.  Then he began to read from his notes.  ¨1900, it was a reactionary movement.  Meant to eliminate the expanding control of the foreigners. The Boxer Rebellion.¨

                 I shifted position, the chair digging into my back.  My foot knocked over a half filled cup of machine coffee I hadn´t spotted on the floor.  I lost the thread of Dr. Lee as I watched the coffee spread and finally stop in a brown puddle several feet from my desk. 

                ¨In 1900…¨ Dr. Lee paused.  He started again.  ¨In 1900.¨ He stopped. 

                I snapped to alertness.  Had we offended Dr. Lee?  I once was in a class where the professor threw a girl out for no apparent reason and since then had never felt completely at ease.

                Silence grew and expanded.  

                ¨I can´t.¨ He sat down.

                More silence. Students shot each other looks.  After what seemed like ages, one of the students in the front row tried to encourage either him or us, ¨We need to know what happens.  In 1900.¨

                Dr. Lee was beyond explanations, knowing perfectly well 1900 was irrelevant to us.  Silence made it hard to breathe.  He shook his head, all eyes on him.  ¨I don´t know what´s happened.¨ He sounded as surprised as all of us.

                Another voice, ¨Go on, please.¨

                ¨It´s not just this.¨ He dismissed the centuries of China.  ¨It´s everything.¨

                My palms started to sweat.  We were sophomores, not prepared for this display of humanity.

                ¨You need to take a break.¨ Suddenly suggestions came from all parts of the room.

                ¨You´ll feel better tomorrow; get some rest.¨

                ¨Go out with your friends, have a beer.¨

                ¨Are you married?¨ Dr. Lee shook his head.  ¨You need to meet someone.¨

                I put in my two cents worth.  ¨Take a vacation.  That´ll help.¨

                Silence again.  Then he picked up his briefcase, nodded at us all, and left the room.

                There was a buzz in the room.  Then we got up and left without a word.

                Tuesday Dr. Lee was no longer there.  A graduate student took his place. He didn´t come back in the spring semester either.  Rumors were he´d gone to Korea.  I needed to believe he´d gone home or that he was vacationing somewhere far away.  If not, we had failed him. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Snow Memories

    When I lived abroad I had a predilection for snow movies- the made for TV movies where a couple is stranded in mountain snow, the climbing Everest movies, and of course, the long snowy trek in "The Day after Tomorrow". 
     Fast forward.  I'm back in snow after 20 years.  The first winter when I looked out the window to snow piled up outside, I wondered, "What do I do now?"  It took a couple of winters to get the right footwear and the right clothes.
      And the verdict?  My sister (in Atlanta) joked and said a rescue mission to get me might be in order and I'm almost at the point of agreeing.  But I can't give up (at least, not yet).  Should I try snowshoes?  Or just stay in, watch Netflix, read Scandinavian crime novels, and drink red wine?  I can emerge pasty white and shivering in April.
   Part 2 of my bus series.




The light is dying

This city is dying

One burnt building

a day.

A leaf


At the bus stop

a man asks

are you the baby girl


I say yes, I am.




Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Class War

What happened?  All the years away and I never saw it coming.  My workmate said, “Everything I was told as a child was a lie”  Work hard?  Where does it get you?”

            Good question.  I am probably working more hours than I have in years and it isn’t leading anywhere.  There are no raises, no opportunities in sight.  This is what has happened in America in the years I was gone and is beginning to occur in Europe too.  You can work full time at McDonald’s and be told to apply for food stamps and to eat more slowly so you feel full.  You can be like the adjunct professor who wrote that his salary was so low, he sometimes resorted to selling his blood.

You can be like a workmate who said she can only afford the interest on her school loans so she’s hoping they’ll be forgiven when she retires. 

That leads us to the second statement my workmate said was a lie, “Education will make a difference.”  It always did to me and to my immigrant parents.  It’s still what I tell my students but am I wrong?  How much debt does it take?  Can you study something you love?  What is waiting for you when you finish?  The job as a security guard at Walmart?  That ever present adjunct job?

When did the decision get made to squeeze out the middle class so that profits for the famous top 1% can be scandalous?   How wealthy are the wealthy? I taught English to an insurance exec in Barcelona who said he had enough for his children and grandchildren and didn’t need to amass more wealth.  That seems reasonable but not very common.  How far are we from the grim future of the Scifi novels?  Already studies show the wealthy are less likely to show compassion.

More questions than answers.  How do we live in a more compassionate society?


One of my poems from “A Remedy of Touch”

Love this Place


Am I to love this place,

no bridges arch

over a glittering city.

No gargoyles keep watch.


To love this place

where steel mills lay fallow,

hunks of metal shade

gutted homes.

Past the Michigan Avenue

Baptist Church,

my mother and father

enter home on their wedding day,

She dreams of white

And thresholds

 to be carried across.


Love this place,

drip drop of ice

slides off eaves, 

like so many promises.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Phones, refugees, and a poem

I’ve been actively looking for a job which has kept me from posting anything.  So far, no success- at least not for a job I really want.  So will I be facing a very long freezing cold winter here?  Looks like it….


The first time I witnessed cell phone excess was in the 90’s.  I was in Rome in a restaurant next to a table of 20 somethings.  They barely gave the waiter enough attention to place their orders, still holding onto their phones almost through the entire dinner.  Now, it’s commonplace.  In Rite-Aid the clerk told me she felt invisible since customers barely acknowledged her.  Last weekend I went to see the Balle Fokloric de Bahia.  Now this is a fabulous dance troupe with great musicians and drumming that keeps you moving to the music.  Or not.  A woman in front of me was glued to her cell phone even though the drummers and dancers came up the stairs into the audience.  Well, maybe that got her attention.

   I’m guilty of the cell phone connectedness.  It gives me something to do with my nervous fingers.  It helps me block out all the crazies on my daily public transportation.  I hope I know the limits of my escapism before I miss something wonderful or important.


The deaths of two refugee students last week led me to this…. and my own parents’ escape from the war.



Buy gold

Buy it now.

When you flee

the home exploding,

the burnt landscape,

trade it for a loaf of bread.


Remember poems,

as many that

fill the confined

calendar days  

of prison.


Saturday, August 31, 2013

Repost of Mediterranean plus a poem

Yesterday I spent the day on the Lake, thinking of the history of Lake Erie and how once it was the largest fish producer in the world.  Then I remembered the Mediterranean Sea with its history of the Greeks, Romans, and Iberians.  And that leads me to this repost from my happy moments on my favorite sea.  At the end of the post after the classic song, Mediterranean,  I included the poem with the same title from my first chapbook.

     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 by Joan Manuel Serrat:

I have a poem from my first chapbook too.


I live in a country
where you can choose to die
trampled by a bull, madly foaming
in an age old ritual,
where  slowly yet certainly
parrots nest in the palms
replacing street worn pigeons
already tagged and counted.
No prohibition
the body is gently forgiven
I too lay naked outside.
Red flowers burst
against white walls
narrow rocks step
to the sea,
blue as ice,
warm as milk.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Who's your Favorite Saint?

The mind boggles at the options.  The saints had messy curious lives which makes them oddities populating a strange world.   I had the paperback books of saints as a child preparing for my communion.  I never understood Catherine who was tortured with a toothed wheel and beheaded or Lucy, depicted with her eyes on a plate. It’s amazing these stories were given to impressionable children to read.  Knowing nothing other than the name Teresa, (Therese) Little Flower, I chose her.  She looked gentle enough.  She fit in with my love of the Jesus of a blurry painting of the blond man with the red pulsating heart. At the age of 7 I proclaimed I wanted to be a nun.  “You’ll have to sleep on a bed of nails.”  I was told.  I don’t care, I’ll do it, was my answer. Years later in a film depicting  Teresa’s life, she drank the tubercular sputum from an infected lung.  My connection through name was permanently severed. 

    These days I have a book of the saints (Saints, A year in Faith and Art)  with golden pages and short biographies.  I discovered the namesakes of all the street names I knew in Barcelona, like Saint Anthony Mary Claret ( a confessor to the king and therefore suspect) or Sant Roc, a hermit and healer who was miraculously cured by an angel and nourished by a dog.  There is the dramatic, the outrageous about the saints. I like the layer in the religious hierarchy they represent though I couldn’t imagine praying to them to intercede to God for me.  Why would I, when, like a good pagan, I believe God is everywhere, within or without.  How would they serve as a model?

     That brings me to Teresa of Avila, another namesake.  In “A Tremor of Bliss, Contemporary Writers on the Saints”, Francine Prose writes “ Teresa claimed to hate writing, to be unable to write, her work is full of self-doubt, of excuses for procrastinations and apologies..Whys is she not-for these reasons alone- the patron saint of writers?”  Indeed.  So along with my inusuk, budda, ganesh statue, dirt from Latvia, the black virgin of Aglona, and other icons, I try to cover all the bases.  I need that statue of Teresa next. 


And an old poem, as I’m clearing out papers…

                       Apolonia Painted



We pointed out the flaws,

Look, a dog as big as a house

in the background,

no perspective here,

But Apolonia painted

and danced,

Her wig askew

after vodka shots,

Apolonia painted

and promised love


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Society of Consumption and a poem

As I was walking to my poetry reading in a crowd of people at a local infringement festival, a woman stopped and pointed at me.  “Flax,” she said.  “What?’  Then I looked down at my shirt; she was identifying the brand of clothing in a recognition that must have provided connection in this deeply disconnected realm.  Your brand, even if you pay little or no attention to it, serves as an identification.  It’s just one more puzzle in the world of consumption that is America.

    Today I just redeemed a $10 coupon, plus 15% off, plus another $5 off in what must be the most brilliant of sales techniques.  It brings me to a store I would never have gone into otherwise and which now I frequent though I need nothing at all.  What does this consumption replace? 

   In Barcelona, consumption was massive crowds on Saturday afternoons.  Shopping gave a sense of a happening, an event that was not to be missed.  Here in contrast, it is what takes over a part of your life that could be reserved for meeting friends, having a coffee, doing anything at all to contact with people. 

    And there no one would admit to a bargain.  While here in the US I can brag that after all my discounts the dress I’m wearing only cost $10, that would never happen in BCN.  There’s no merit to admitting you got your shirt at the rebajas at Zara.  Maybe you’re supposed to pretend everything you wear is full priced high quality that will last forever.  And that’s never the case.

    So tell me, why do YOU shop?


I’ve found some poems.


                  Common Prayer

Upstairs alone

I check off countries

Gambia, Bahrain, Sudan

from a list of possibilities.

Downstairs I hear

your child announcing

her love, your voice

smooth surprise in return.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Bureaucracy in your life.

      How big a role does bureaucracy play in your life?  That may very well depend on where you live or where you work.  When I lived in Spain, bureaucracy was always a factor to keep in mind.  How long would a simple transaction (bank, bills, offices, work permits, etc) take?  An hour or all day? Here is an essay account of renewing my work permit in Barcelona.  (The article needs Adobe to open it.)

      But this pales compared to working with the Board of Ed.  Here I inhabit an authentic Catch 22 universe. 
      Case in point 1.  I taught a night class in which I provided my own computer (nothing functioned in the building), my own texts and materials, and I even canvassed for students.  My reward for this was a written evaluation in which I was told I had to be more proactive.  You've got to be kidding was my response.

    Point 2.  Paperwork.  We have weekly attendance, lesson plans, and scan sheets to turn in which I never had any problems with.  There are apparently 2 people dedicated to full time monitoring like police officers.  Twice I've been called in to meet a particular person.  The first time was because I was off the day paperwork was due and I turned it in one day late.
      This week the office has lost my paperwork.  It was turned it on time correctly but since they are blameless I pay the consequences- letters on file, missed classes to attend the reprimand meeting. 
       What's you bureaucratic nightmare?

Back to the Spanish nostalgia- a poem from my first 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.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Small things bring great pleasure

     What gives you a sense of accomplishment?  The adjective "accomplished" is so often accompanied with strong nouns like "pianist" or "writer".  Yet the feeling of accomplishment can come at unexpected moments. 
     A friend's eight- year-old daughter was in the backyard on a playhouse contraption with a slide but no ladder.  She urged me to climb up the slide, as persuasive as an adult saying, "You can do it."  Plopped down on my stomach I hauled myself up to the top of the slide and entered the playhouse.  And it felt good to do a thing so out of my usual activities.
   The other day I had 2 photos in an exhibit of Miksang photography.  Since I'm neither an artist or a photographer, going to the opening and seeing the photos brought me great pleasure.  I don't think I've had anything I've created exhibited since I was in high school or even, middle school.
   So life extends its endless possibilities.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Holidays and the latest one, Father's Day


    I’ve never been so aware of holidays, not in the British sense of the word meaning vacation, but specific days to celebrate some event, often military or religious.  As an ESL instructor I go from holiday to holiday.  The latest one was Flag Day.  Last year this was celebrated by very elderly veterans and their wives who arrived to the classes with miniature flags and snacks for the refugees from dozens of countries.  Seen through their eyes, what could it all have meant?  This year we did a simple reading about the flag.  Often I try not to get into the grimmer aspects of US history since I figure they’ll have time for all of that soon enough.

    In Spain holidays came with little explanation and a tendency to extend them into “puentes” or bridges.  That meant there was one December when Constitution Day and the Immaculate Conception  resulted in an entire week off.  There was nothing religious about those days with such religious names. 
   When I was teaching at the University of Barcelona, in addition to the Day of St. Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of universities, each faculty had a patron saint which was celebrated with a day off.  In case you might have an impression of a culture where no one works, nothing could be further from the truth.  I taught in companies where workers arrived around 8 and stayed that long.  The thing was that people knew how to enjoy their time off and it was a right. 

    So that leads us to Father’s Day.  This was a day I don’t think I ever celebrated but now that I’m on the endless holiday loop, why not? 

   Here’s a poem from my chapbook:


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.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Headscarves and babushkas- my take

     The other day I saw a cashier at Marshall’s wearing a headscarf.  This was a first here in Buffalo.  This is a fairly common occurrence in cities around the world but not here.  In Frankfort, I saw women in niqabs (garment that fully covers except for the eyes) and as we know, France has banned the headscarf in schools.  So this leads to the question why this visible mark of a religious or cultural identity is so polemic. 

    Years ago (and it still may be true) the women in the countryside in Latvia wore scarves- kerchiefs tied under the chin.  The term babushka is part of our language and brings to mind images of grandmas.  Why did women cover their heads?  My grandmother wore a kerchief as did my mother on occasion.  Was it for religious reasons?  My family was Catholic and entering church meant covering the head for women so that could be one explanation.  Or was it a generalized custom for married women to wear a kerchief as in parts of Russia? What did it mean?  Was a married woman supposed to make herself less attractive?  Evidently hair has an erotic component that has been present in many cultural traditions. 

    These days I work with immigrants and refugees so I see headscarves in a variety of styles.  Some women wear scarves in colors and patterns that loosely cover their heads while others wear white scarves that frame the face and are reminiscent of what Catholic nuns wore many years ago.  In some Islamic guides it’s stated that all body parts except for the hands, feet, and face have an erotic component and must be covered.  I first came in contact with strict Islamic rules was when I was working in Malaysia.  When I received student evaluations, one student commented that I dressed suggestively.  This, despite, my covering my arms and legs in a very hot climate.  I discovered that this was a weapon that could always be used against a woman, whether it was true or not. The woman was to blame for the male’s reaction.

       The element of showing one’s hair solely for the pleasure of the husband connects with the concept of possession.  I had a Palestinian man show me a picture of his unveiled wife and tell me,” this is only for me”.  I wanted to answer, for me too now, but I am a woman and I am allowed to see this.  One of my young Afghani students was brushing out her long hair in the ladies room and told me, “I didn’t cover it before but my boyfriend told me to.” 

       It’s interesting that the French government finds the headscarf a threat to its society.  I no longer find it so even though I am a feminist.  Many of the women who follow this custom and wear the headscarf are highly accomplished professionals.  They choose to follow their beliefs and I find them no less repressive than the stilettos or fashions imposed on us.  As women, no matter where we are or what we believe, there are dictates of what is acceptable or attractive that we are supposed to follow. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Archetype of Mother

The Mother Archetype

 My mother (Julija) died when I was 19 so I’ve lived more years without her than with her.  This has elevated my mother to a figure of “Mother”, an archetype more than a real person and this is how I experienced her for many years.   It started with her long illness which gave a face to suffering and I can still see the grimace of pain on her face even at death.    

     Now I’m approaching the age she was when she was first diagnosed with cancer.  And I am rediscovering a person beyond the martyr or the “Mother.”  She was the one who was the center of attention, the one who organized all the festivities in our house.  She was the one who knew a thousand stories to tell of myths and animals, who kept me close to the earth with walks stopping to show a plant that tasted sour or a mushroom to eat.

     There was a time when Julija danced through the five day long weddings in Latvia and had a string of suitors.  She won the math prizes in her school and on the way home brought the cows in for milking. 

    All those years of life and pleasure are what’s returning to me.  I am her daughter after all and I sought happiness in different ways but have found her again in the curves of the hills of our farm and the gardens she so cared for. 


A poem for those days.  May they live on.




New York wrap around world,

thickets  engulf  the unsuspecting,

panic  pierces  the young.

To be an immigrant once again,

returning to childhood fears

in accented  tongues,

rhapsody  in decay.


It´s still there.

The river slows.

A cathedral stands  despite

endless shows of light and age.

I verify, in season,

my city is alive.


Perhaps the city is another,

one of ancient  folk tales,

of mother  and kin

traced to age and left behind.

What is place to exist

except  in  a dream?


Country cicadas  and  grasshopper  green

marked my youth. 

Snakes scared even mother

as staunch as the universe.

The country  is tractor  widths

and early morning eyes.

Say it is so, this life of shaping

rocks and dreams. 


The last visit

marred by dead,

once singing alive  in its core.

The body too long gone,

I wake to it dressed and plucked,

left in the snow.

Even Granny visits,

her cane  parting the clouds.

We smile and her massive  flesh

wrinkled and folded moves  on.