About Andrew Lewis

I am alive. And well. And thinking too.

On listening

in Aspen this last week, a man spoke of the need for radical listening and offered the following antidote when listening to something that stands in opposition to everything you believe.

Tell yourself this:

Everyone is good.

Everyone hurts.

Everyone can heal.

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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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Thank you for the KQED listen.

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.

Rupmaize

Recently as a last act before an upcoming 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 if you want, and some sort of yogurt or kefir (call it turned milk).  Mix it up, let the yeasts and bacterias start to do their thing and then throw in a warm box (i.e. 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.  In 1944 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 repast.  It can keep you fed when you may not have access to a kitchen for days or months on end.

In the year I lived in Cleveland with my Uncle Eriks and Aunt Ingrid, I recall how many evenings after dinner, Eriks would end the day with a slice of rupmaize and some black tea.  I may entirely be making this up, but I remember this ritual where he would sit at the kitchen table and would fill a ceramic mug with deep black tea and he would lather a slice of rupmaize with butter and jam.

This was his dessert.

He was very particular in the details and I remember him once giggling as he explained them to us.

But I was only twelve and I didn’t get it then.

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.  Just a little bit will carry us in a time of need.

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

So in this moment, on this morning, I think of my Aunt Ingrid who baked the bread. And my Uncle Eriks who so appreciated it.  And for both these things I thank them.

 

Starman

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The evening of the Falcon Heavy launch, my wife Anna and I sat at home and watched at the video stream of Starman driving oh so calm past the planet Earth before his booster launched him into the middle reaches of the Solar System.

Anna grew teary eyed.  “You know,” she laughed, “that’s what makes our country so cool.  A Dane would never do it that way.  Only an American would think to do something like that.”

I know.  The Vikings, the original nordic explorers, were in fact Danes.  David Bowie was a Brit.  Nikolai Tesla was Croatian.  And yes, Elon Musk is  from South Africa.  Which is perhaps the point.

I think what Anna was getting at was not an America that is different or opposed to the world, but one that is the world.  An America composed of all people who have a belief that there in fact might be something better or different over the horizon, that at the very least there is going to be a future, and gosh darn it, with a laugh and spring to my step, I’m going to find it.

Innovation and exploration, two fundamental aspects of this thing we call America, are fundamentally ridiculous acts:  they both are premised on a belief in something that does not yet exist.  It means doing something simply because it’s crazy, or at the very least to show that it can be done.

And what could be a more American (and ridiculous) gesture – to cast into the sky a hunk of metal equipped with four tires, and set it’s crash test dummy driver toward a horizon that is truly boundless.

It’s the ultimate car commercial – as if to say, “look at how great we are,” and then with a chuckle, “and how truly small.”

Those two competing ideas can and must coexist if we are to go out and beyond.

No doubt they were present in the minds of countless young people as they gazed at that small red car as it left the orbit of our Earth (reminding us all not to panic) and they thought secretly to themselves, “I’m going to go there.”