On Turning 54

I awaken.

I bring kindling in from outside.

I build a fire in the wood stove.

A deluge of rain outside, though the air is saturated with a brilliant light.

Perhaps these are not great things, but they are the small matter that is my life.  

———

I intended to reflect this morning on this slightly beyond the midpoint, but instead I found myself texting the son of a friend who sat somewhat bored in his high school history class in Rhode Island.

Why?  Because he faces forward.  And because I am facing back.  And I can’t help but think that he could use an outstretched hand if not from me, than perhaps his future self.  Someone perhaps to just assure him that everything is going to be alright.

———

On most days I work on the creek.  Our friends call it Frog Creek, but I call it the Mighty Froggy. I imagine it as having the grandiosity of the Mississippi, the potent history of the Ganges, the raging force of the Amazon.  

But it’s really just a little creek that cuts across the property.  

And when asked, I tell people that I’m restoring it, but really I just spend a few hours each day carrying about buckets of dirt and stone debris and placing fallen branches against the banks.  

I watch how the water flows.  I’ve learned a little bit about water and silt.  I’m slowly learning the personality and rhythm’s of this little stretch of water and the plants and animals that co-inhabit it.  I tell myself that by doing this I am making the world a better place.

Granted, it’s not much.  So little in fact, that my wife rightly asks if that’s what I want to be doing with my life.

The answer is, well, no.  But it is, in fact, what I am doing.  For whatever that’s worth.

———

On the occasion of his fortieth birthday, Joseph Brodsky wrote

I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,

worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,

planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,

guzzled everything save dry water.

Even with an additional 14 years logged, my life has lacked such grandeur.  I have braved neither wild beasts nor steel cages.  Depending of course on what kind of steel cages to which one might be referring.   

Brodsky was born in Leningrad, but I might hazard that he was really born in St. Petersburg, or affectionately known as Pyötr by native born Russians.   

His language seems to predate all things Soviet. And his body now sleeps in the San Michelle Cemetery, in the Venice lagoon, in the spit of that city that he so loved, the canaled dream that he ventured to only in winter because it reminded him of some foggy glassine version of the city from which he’d come.  

Fitting that the rising oceans will subsume equally his native city and his final resting place.  

The summer after he won the Nobel prize I was in Moscow during the optimistic dead center years of perestroika.  I was there on a general tourist visa under the auspices of Volunteers for Peace which sponsored non-traditional tourism in the Soviet Union.  While there, the organizer, Peter Coldwell from Vermont, fell ill, or broke his back or legs or something, and he had to return home.  I was one of the few participants who spoke a bit of Russian so he asked me to assist two graduate students at Moscow State University in coordinating things for the group.  

The day after Peter left, however, the students, pulled all 25 of us together.  They were exhausted, yet running on a kind of manic energy.  They had to apologize.  It was terrible, they said, but they had done the impossible.  It had taken days, but an opportunity had presented itself and at unheard of pace and through good fortune they had commandeered the necessary papers and resources. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, they tearfully explained, for which they had to abandon everything.  In a few hours they would board a plane and they would fly to New York City in America.  They were going to visit Joseph Brodsky.  

You are in charge, now, they told me.  And one sobbed and hugged me as he stepped off the bus.  I’m so sorry we are letting you all down, he said.  I am so sorry.

On my 54th birthday I wonder about those two graduate students.  And I wonder about the conversations that they must have had with the poet.

And I wonder if this in fact even happened, or if it happened in the way that I recall.  If our lives are composed of memories and those memories themselves are suspect, then what really do we have left to call our own?

———

We all are in the process of dying. 

I think today of friends who, if not dying, are driving perilously close to the abyss.  And I can say for certain that such a vantage, despite its commensurate fear and sadness, promotes a heightened if not unwelcome sense of living.  That’s not meant as a consolation because there can be none.  So it stands only as an assertion of limited truth.  

I think of you all because you’re the ones I want in the room right now.

———

This morning I also binge listen to my daughter’s music.  I listen to her all of seventeen singing on an open stage one of the first songs she had ever written.

She writes far more fluently than I ever did at her age.  And I would trade all my future years for the youthfulness and competence and execution of her written voice.

So perhaps if ever there were to be a suggestion of what I’m feeling on this day, fifty-four years from when I was born, it would be this.

And I tell myself as I do each year, I am going to write something for you all.

Perhaps this will be the year.

 

 

Asylum

Rūta. Arija. Ieviņš.

That was my mother’s name.

As a 14 year old girl she travelled on foot the breadth of Europe fleeing the advancing Soviet troops. If she and her father and brother had not fled their native country, they would have died. Their knowledge of this fate was so certain that they eventually risked death to escape it. And for that, they journeyed on a hard, hard road.

My mother would spend her teen years in displaced persons camps in Germany. For five years she lived in detention. She did not have a country that she could go back to. And neither did she have a new one to which she could belong.

And she was abandoned in more ways than one. Her mother died during the war. In flight as a young girl, she was separated from her father for months at a time. These things took their toll. Later in life she would have a hard time forming attachments. She was prone to depression. As a grown woman, she would have difficulty sleeping. She would cry uncontrollably in the night. She was short of temper. In her bouts of sadness and rage, she could sometimes be violent.

But then again, perhaps she had it easy. In February 1945, as a young girl she joined hundreds of thousands of European refugees as they pressed toward the Elbe river. The Yalta Conference had just concluded, and by word of mouth, she learned where the borders would be drawn. Get across the Elbe, the people told one another. Across the Elbe you will be with the Americans.

My mother and brother were instructed to make peace with the American soldiers when they arrived. They were told to just surrender. If nothing else, at least you will get fed, people said. That was quite often the sentiment, my uncle once recalled. You will get fed and you will be taken care of.

Because the Americans don’t mistreat their prisoners.

They are not the Russians.

Rupmaize (the radio version)

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Rupmaize

Bread, the very symbol of daily sustenance across time and cultures. And to Andrew Lewis and his World War II surviving family members a special bread has special meaning.

As a last act before a recent move, I baked two loaves of rupmaize.

It’s basically a Latvian rye bread – but it’s much more than that, partly because it’s much less. It’s essentially rye flour, water, a little yeast, and some sort of yogurt or kefir (call it turned milk). Mix it up, let the yeasts start to do their thing and then throw in a warm box (call it an oven) to arrest the action. You end up with these loaves that are some crazy cross between that hearty bread eaten by dwarves and that ethereal cake of which elves partake. It’s both sweet and sour. And it sustains.

During World War II, when Latvian families were loading up their wagons preparing for evacuation, no doubt women all over the countryside were hastily wrapping still warm rupmaize in cloth and packing it in baskets. It’s powerful stuff: One slice in the morning and you’re good until mid-day when a second slice keeps you going until afternoon. It can keep you fed when you may not have access to a kitchen for days or months on end.

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The year I lived in Cleveland with my aunt and uncle, my uncle would end the day with a slice of rupmaize and some tea. As part of his ornate ritual, he would fill a ceramic mug with deep black tea and would slowly lather a slice of rupmaize with butter and honey. This was his dessert. He was very particular in the details and I remember him once giggling as he explained them to me. But I was only twelve and I didn’t get it.

For my uncle, a survivor of war and tragedy, this was sacrament. Literally, give us this day our daily bread. As if to say, this stuff is the staff of life. We deserve no more, and just this is enough. A little bit will carry us in a time of need.

And we all have, in every moment, a time of need.

Schmaltz

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A few nights ago, some critter got our chickens.  The coop latches had been chewed off, the door pulled down. 

Bobcats are neat and artistic in their massacres. Coyotes: they take everything.   But here, two Buff Orpingtons lay dead in an area of matted grass and strewn feathers. A third bird was gone entirely.  So probably a raccoon which kills for the killing sake.

I grabbed the two dead hens and carried them into the kitchen. Years ago, a neighbor had killed an orphaned raven that I’d been raising.  I was away at the time and the house sitter had buried the bird carcass in the desert. A dear friend – an omnivore woodsman from rural Maine – lamented that “it was a terrible waste of perfectly good protein.”

So, that evening I go about the dirty business.  I set a pot of water on the stove on a medium heat.  I dunk the birds in the water. Again and again. And again until the feather’s slip from the flesh as if from butter.

I strip all the down from the body, revealing the teeth marks and contusions. The birds had been savaged until their necks had snapped.

I severed the heads with a cleaver and then incised the rumps and reached in and removed the gray feces filled intestines, the ruby heart and livers wedded in deep yellow orbs of fat. It smelled distasteful and putrid.  

The gathered fat, an unearthly gold, was a different matter.  I would render it slowly at low temperature into that delicacy which generations of itinerant and dispossessed would call “schmaltz” — the ignominious word for that crucial ingredient in chicken soup that may perhaps make you well, and that thing that lends the crisp to latkes.  It’s that thing that can only be extracted from a bird that has known a real life; that thing which at the very least gives meaning to death.  

These sentient creatures loved to explore our home and sit on our porch.  What more can I do than to ensure that their being will in some way become a part of me and that it will matter?

 

American Empire

Yesterday afternoon, I disassembled our deep amber American Empire bed.  In a few weeks I will drive it to San Diego.  

My wife’s family hails from Texas, part of the original Texas Five Hundred.  When we first met thirty years ago, she spoke wistfully about her house growing up – the old wooden furniture, the strange objects and curios repurposed by her parents.  But her family had dissolved and the furniture had been cast to various storage lockers and garages of relatives and strangers.  

I dreamt that one day we would rebuild that life for her, that we would bring that furniture together in a some grand house, and appoint that space with her childhood memories and somehow make her life whole again.  

Which over time we did.  The last couple bits, including this ancient bed from East Texas — the bed, we imagined, of her great grandmother and the bed of her parents came to find it’s home in Sebastopol. We fit it with an organic latex mattress.  And now life, I thought, could once again be whole.

Except not so much.  The headboard was too tall and would not fit in any room except that master bed. But the  bed itself was small – more narrow than a full, and of such insufficient length that it betrayed how height deprived our ancestors truly were.  When our dog jumped in the bed, we were truly squished.

And now we’ve come to abandon our house, making room for a family that lost their own home to the Sonoma fires.  We are clearing our home of detritus, of those things – all those things – that don’t work.  The new family is coming with their own king sized mattress. And so one afternoon I call my wife at work.  “I think we should get rid of the bed,” I tell her.

Get rid of it, she answers.  Her family failed to survive an alcoholic father and the suicide of her mother.  I look at this American Empire, and I think, some things can’t ever, in all their undoing, be reconstituted. The only thing left, well, is to seize the future and make life new again.  

And perhaps, that is what that bed was meant to be.