Sunday, August 31, 2008

Let Go, Let God, and the Leaving of Breadcrumbs Along the Way

by Zinta Aistars

Of all life's lessons, perhaps one of the most important, and one of the most difficult for me, is the lesson of letting go. The wonderful phrase, as I have heard it, both deeply comforting and vastly terrifying, is: "Let go, let God."

You mean… I'm not God? I don't control the universe? Shucks. And here I thought… that sparkling tiara, rhinestones spelling out, "Empress of the Universe," was mine. Well, no. I never really did think that. But one can dream.

Yes, yes, tongue firmly in cheek. Truth be told, I would never want such responsibility. I have quickly grown exhausted when I have in the past tried to carry such weight. I happen to think being God, or being Empress of the Universe, is a pretty tough job, and I want none of it. Or only the tiniest sliver of it. Now and then. So that I can toss it back again when I tire.

Like now.

Life has been a bit on the stressful side of late. I have had two dear friends cry on both of my shoulders in just the past week. I was able to do nothing more than to listen, offer my heartfelt empathy, a warm embrace. There, there. Even while I knew (adding stress), there but for the grace of God … and, too, that I could do nothing to take away their pain or alleviate their fears or solve their problems. I could only fully be with them. Let go, let God, alongside them.

See, God and I argue a great deal. We've been doing this my entire life. Sometimes I behave, but sometimes I really, but really, don't want to. I see another path and I want to follow it. He won't let me. He apparently has a different path in mind for me. I bristle, I whimper, I thrash, I shake my fist at the silent and aggravatingly patient sky. Try as I might, however, to change what appears to be firm destiny, the intended path stands open before me, and God is there at the first turn, urging me along. Get going, Z.

All right. I am getting going.

And just to let me know this path won't be so very bad, or so very scary, He leaves a treat for me here and there, almost like a trail of Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs, just so I won't get too lost or too discouraged.

Aforesaid friends, for instance. They are quite new in my life. People who wouldn't know me from Adam, that new, yet connecting with me so quickly and firmly, so surely, that I cannot doubt we were meant to blaze a few trails together, at least for a while. A few shared meals, a couple (or a couple more) tossed back drinks, and we are sharing life stories and finishing each other's sentences. It is the comfort of finding mirror images, other souls who get it, get us, so that we can sigh with relief that we do not have to explain every last thought or demystify every instinct followed. Those are magical moments. Real breadcrumbs along the wooded paths, if not actual hot buttered slices.

And then there are the friends who surface from the past, long thought buried. (The past, that is, not the old friends.) One such jumped into my day just last week, same week as my needful friends, and on a particularly stressful day, when I had begun to question all purpose and direction, muttering nastiness at the Big Guy again. Am I really who I think I am? Are all my lifelong honed skills being questioned? Have I done the obligatory spilling of blood, sweat, tears, for naught? But I come home to a voicemail left on my blinking machine, and I listen to it three times before I take it in: I have been asked to be a judge on the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo later in September. At a time when I have been struggling with the sense that I am not being trusted to do what I do best, that I have even begun to question (distrust) myself, here it is—implicit trust. That I do know how to do what I do best. I call back and with renewed heart accept the offer. I can hardly wait for the packet to arrive in my mail of grant proposals to review. And I am filled with a sense of almost overwhelming honor, that other artists are putting their sweetest dreams at least in part into my hands. I understand this. I honor this. Because I know, this is that lesson with which I so struggle: letting go. Let God. Let the judges do their thing and with heart and skill, decide. I will do my part with utmost care.

That offer came to me, I realize, because of an old connection. Years ago, a story I had written, and the person I had profiled becoming more than a subject of an article during the course of our four-hour interview. Both our lives have experienced a few storms since. Both of us now work in entirely different places and manner and venues. But I can hear her voice in the background as I speak to someone at the arts council about the particulars of my new role: "Tell Zinta I love her! I will call soon!"

On the other end of that phone line, for a moment, I close my eyes and smile. We haven't spoken for years. Time has devoured too much. Yet even with the passage of time, I well remember that moment long ago, of looking into a mirror image and knowing myself connected. In learning someone else's life story, I returned to my own. A breadcrumb today, and I remember how I used to know how to do that, listen to stories, embrace those stories, and tell them back to the world again. The connections made were myriad.

What we give along the way, with time, always, in equal measure, comes back to us.

Sometimes, I know, we are the ones who leave breadcrumbs for others. Our paths wind around and find each other again, for a while travel in parallel directions before perhaps veering off again. If on occasion I feel lost again, questioning my direction, I am learning to renew my trust in my own good instinct, to follow its voice of wisdom, even as I sometimes suspect it may tangle with the voice of God and urge us forward. Even if the next turn seems the darkest and steepest of all.

I know I need to listen. For a while, to quiet my own voice, just listen. For a while, slow my hurried steps long enough to spot the crumbs mixed in with the stones on this path. As I pack a bag with a few carefully chosen items for my upcoming week at a retreat, it is my intention to slow down, to be silent, to walk, to listen, to take a long moment simply to breathe. Breathe. And exhale.

And I wonder at the name–retreat. A part of this week is indeed to retreat from the busyness of life, from the roar of too many demands, from the murkiness of madness when all perspective gets lost. But this is not just to retreat. I am entering this week ahead with the idea, too, of embrace. All that the silence will say to me. All that the days and nights of solitude will bring to me. All that my heart can hold for the gifts I am trusting I will find.

As I leave my home, my family, my friends, my work, and travel to this place in the wilderness, where I will be greeted by what at this time I only know as a sweet and soft spoken voice on a telephone line, pointing me in the direction of a path that will lead me into the woods—I will retreat from one life to embrace another. At the end of this path, I am told, is a cabin reserved just for me. It will have little more than a bed, a table, a chair. It will be far away from any sign of civilization. It will have no television, no Internet connection, no newspapers, no phones, no fax machines. Not even a radio. It will have a small stove where I can cook whatever groceries I can carry into the woods in my backpack. No one will bother me for the entire time I am there. Until I emerge from the woods again.

I pack my bag slowly, pondering each item. Books to read and notebooks in which to write. These will be my sustenance. Many ideas. More than a few hopes.

I hope to leave the stress of a too busy life behind. Or to at least be able to peel it away, layer by layer, over the coming days. Until I find my core again. Until I can find the courage to stop dancing quite so fast and to let go, and allow myself to be carried for a while.

A handful of breadcrumbs. Shards of mirror images and the echoes of loving voices. These are coming with me. To these I will return. Retreat and embrace.

I'm letting go now, Lord. Show me the way.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mara Zalite (1952 -): Voice of Blood

Published in Her Circle Ezine, April 22, 2008

by Zinta Aistars

Words splash at my feet,

the voice of my blood talks, whispers and

fills the chambers.

Glittering river.

Here, I am.

~ from the poem, “Language,” by M. Zalite

What we are denied, we often learn to treasure most. Of those basics that a human being needs to live life well, surely language—the ability to communicate freely—is one of the building blocks upon which nearly all else in civilized life is built. Language is our means of self-expression but also our vehicle of connection with the rest of humanity.

Mara Zalite (zah-lee-teh) is a child of the Soviet Union, born in 1952, in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, but returning to Latvia with her family at age four to grow up in the then Soviet-occupied Baltic nation. Among the many losses of freedom in Latvia at that time was the loss of free speech. Indeed, even just the use of the Latvian language was discouraged, if not made into a punishable offense, substituting instead the language of “Mother Russia.” And still, Latvian literature flourished, as various art forms often do in suppressed areas. Art has always proven to be a survival mechanism, if not a tool for revolution. Language, the word that is more powerful than even the sword, carries great energy and life force, and no one understood this better than those standing at the Soviet helm. Zalite, having lived in a time when language was denied as well as in a time when language in all its varied facets flourishes again, has a strong appreciation for her native tongue that emerges repeatedly in her various literary art forms. It is the voice of her blood, she writes, it is her identity. It is, one senses, the carrier of her personal battle cry.

Zalite writes in varied genres and forms: poetry, prose (essays), drama, lyrics, even rock opera. In whatever genre, Latvian folklore has a consistent presence in her work, not only tying her to the roots of Latvian language, but also to Latvian history—the identity of her people. Toward the final years of Soviet occupation in her country, she was known to weave protest into her work in a cry for Latvian independence—which indeed came to fruition in 1991, as the Soviet Union fell at last. Her play, “Pilna Maras istabina,” or “Full Mara’s Room,” staged in 1983, was her groundbreaking work that won her the attention from critics, readers and viewers, that would push her literary career forward. This and many other Zalite’s works have central female figures, adding a second and parallel voice for women’s independence in an independent country. The play addresses the masculine energy which has brutalized the earth and its nations, and renews a cry for the return of the feminine energy, the ancient Mother (earth and nature), mother of all mothers, to take her place again.

Zalite has also published many books of poetry, collections of essays, song lyrics and scripts for musicals. Her work has been translated into German, Russian, English, Estonian, Swedish, and other languages, yet as one who has the privilege and pleasure of reading her work in its original Latvian, to my ear and sensibilities, her work sings best on its own instrument.

One of Zalite’s better known essays, appearing in “Unfinished Thoughts,” is titled “The Cross and the Sword.” In it, she brings up some of those themes and concepts that those who have been long oppressed hold perhaps in higher esteem than those who have long known only freedom. Not only a deeper appreciation of one’s own native language, but the soil that nourishes it—one’s own free land. Delving into ancient Latvian history, dating back to the 13th century, when Latvia was known as Livonia (an area that today also covers parts of Estonia), Zalite traces the appearance of various symbols and their ties to the masculine and feminine in what we think of today as Latvian folklore. In the feminine group falls the concept of homeland. The masculine centers on power and aggression, expanding borders and too often expressing itself in battle and rape and a violence of power over another, but she recalls, too, the nurturing of the mother figure, and what greater mother than one’s land, or homeland. Zalite’s appreciation for her own rediscovered culture is poignant, but as modern times of a shrinking globe urge, she also considers Mother Earth, and that we must show gratitude and care for the mother that has birthed us all. In this mix of escalating mothers, from one’s own corner of the earth, to the earth itself, Zalite urges an appreciation for the diverse cultures of every homeland, for a greater array of self-expression is a wealth to be preserved and cherished. To be a global citizen is not to forget or abandon one’s homeland, but to bring it, rich and full with its unique tapestry of people, to the global arena. More perspectives, more solutions; more diversity, more treasure, benefiting all.

Zalite’s unique voice, its mix of the ancient and the contemporary; the oppressed and the free; the feminine in balance with the masculine; brings the Latvian literary tradition to the global doorstep in a way that perhaps few others can who have not traveled her unique path in life.
A graduate of the University of Latvia, the country’s most prestigious institute of higher education, with a degree in philology, Zalite has worked on various editorial boards and in the Writers’ Union of Latvia. She has been the managing editor of one of the country’s most esteemed literary periodicals, “Karogs,” or “Banner.” She is the president of the Latvian Authors’ Association.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Aspazija (1868-1943): A Voice for Women

Published in Her Circle Ezine
April 15, 2008

by Zinta Aistars

Several Latvian women writers stand out as offering insight into the earliest seeds of feminism—Latvian style, if you will—or, simply, what it meant, and means, to be a woman with a voice. Few, if any, are better known than Aspazija.

It was only in the latter part of the 19th century that Latvian literature found its own riverbed, and as if a dam had opened, a literary culture was fast taking its developmental course, pouring forth with a rush of new literary voices. Prior to this time, although the Latvian language and culture are among the oldest in existence today, the tiny Baltic country was under the heel of one occupying power after another. During that span of centuries, Latvians were not allowed to pursue an education and were forced to live as peasants and serfs, often coming to identify themselves culturally with the current ruler. Nearing the end of the 19th century, that ruling power would have been the German influence, and it wasn’t until a revolution of national identity took place that Latvians finally began to take some pride in being who they were—Latvians.

Aspazija’s voice entered the flow of new Latvian literature during that time, still a girl in high school when she began to write with a more serious intent (her first efforts at poetry was a collection written at age 14 in the German language). Until then, she had been Elza Rozenberga, but now she took a pen name, adopted from the Hammerling novel, Aspasia. The character of Aspasia was a woman of strength and beauty, and young Aspazija set her as a role model, adopting her name as her own. Critical acclaim soon followed, along with an invitation to work in Latvian theater in the capital city of Riga. Aspazija’s talent was recognized in drama, journalism, and as a literary critic.

Her beauty, meanwhile, caught the eye of another, equally fast rising Latvian literary star: Rainis. Not without recognition for the young woman’s literary prowess. The two were married in 1897 (Aspazija’s second marriage, as her first lasted but a short while and seemed mostly fodder for plays she wrote about a woman’s right to live according to her personal sense of life, following her own heart), and Aspazija and Rainis (pen name for Janis Plieksans) became a literary force to be reckoned with on an individual basis as well as a team. Aspazija was widely seen, and not just by Rainis, as being his muse, and the young editor of a Riga newspaper gained fame as a poet and playwright as well as a political influence. In the minds of many Latvians, even today, it is difficult to separate the two. One inspired the other, one’s works were often translated into other languages by the other, and it seems reasonable to imagine, each was the other’s irreplaceable “second pair of editorial eyes.” It is doubtful either would have achieved the level of literary acclaim or even political influence they enjoyed in Latvian society without the support of the other.

Yet to enjoy a strong and mutually satisfying relationship does not detract from a feminist voice. The couple was exiled to Russia and later to Switzerland, but were allowed to return to Latvia when the country regained its independence following World War I. Back in her own land, Aspazija continued to write in a feminist voice, becoming active in the Latvian feminist movement. A strain of rebellion, even when sometimes good-natured and humorous, threaded through many of her works, and her plays, Simple Rights and Unattained Goals, protested a society ruled by men. Her poetry often tended toward more romantic themes.

Aspazija was a member of the Parliament of Latvia from 1920 to 1934 as a representative of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. Her contribution in Latvia’s government was her continued strong voice for women’s rights.

A book was later published of collected correspondence between Aspazija and Rainis, titled Life and Art: A Correspondence, and in it Aspazija wrote:

“With my deep love for my entire nation, I offer the entirety of two people’s lives, regardless of any protests, or threats, into the hands of our nation, so that it may, as a loving mother her children, who have suffered greatly, sometimes losing their way, punish or caress us—such will be our spiritual legacy.”

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Astride Ivaska (1926 - ): To Song We Have Risen

Published in Her Circle Ezine, April 8, 2008

by Zinta Aistars

As with most of us, and, I suspect, in most any language, my first introduction to Latvian poetry was metered and rhymed, tightly reined in, an orderly clomping and marching of verses that moved like soldiers across the page. In Latvian school, which we children of the émigré community attended on Saturdays while our enviable American peers watched cartoons on television, or played ball in the park, or simply slept in, we instead learned to recite classic Latvian poetry. Our teachers drilled the metered lines into our brains, ta-TUM-ta-tum, ta-TUM-ta-da-dum, and we would memorize sometimes pages of these lyrical poems. It was a practice not only in learning literary form, but in rote memorization, and not the least in self-discipline. Many of the poems were testament to the war experience, with lines about the blood spilled in war, the love of one’s country, and the sacrifice made for freedom which we had nonetheless lost.

In those dusky rooms of the school on Saturday mornings, none of us felt particularly free. Super heroes in animated form with capes sweeping the breeze behind them on a television screen seemed much more enticing. But we memorized, and we discussed, and we recited. Poem after poem after poem.

Years later, I had a delayed appreciation for that kind of literary discipline. It was, after all, a world of super heroes. Only the heroes in those poems that spoke of the experience of loving one’s home and losing it, or dying for it, did not bounce back up from the ground for the next cartoon installment. Theirs was the mortal blood that nourished the soil to grow new seed and new life for future generations.

Some of that life took hold outside of Soviet-occupied Latvia. While we children of refugees were learning the old classics, a new generation of poetry was taking shape. It, too, spoke of the love of country, of freedom, and the hunger to survive. Such was the poetry of Astride Hartmane Ivaska, born in the capital city of Riga in 1926, a young woman when the Soviet army marched across the Latvian border. She was of the same generation as my parents and her experience was similar. When I had reached the age that she had been during World War II, I discovered Ivaska’s poetry, and it was nothing like what I had learned in school … and yet it was.

I received a book of Ivaska’s poetry as a gift, and I paged through it with growing wonderment. This was no army of words. There was no orderly marching here. These words danced and swam across the page, they whispered, they sang, they hummed, they wept. A line might stand alone, like a lost muse, only to recover itself in a droplet of syllables further down the page. Sometimes they rhymed, but mostly these words echoed and played off each other. And while this poet, too, wrote of heroes, and blood that was shed, and the ache of losing one’s childhood home to wonder if one would ever be allowed to see it again… it was in a manner that spoke more directly to my own heart. This was the poetry of exile. It contained the longing of a life thrown upon an unknown shore, even as it spoke of new love found, and renewed joy in living.

No pelniemun

no izdedziem

lidz dziesmai

esam celusies.

Un tomer dziedot

pelnu garsamute neizzud

ne mums, ne tiem,

kas saklausa mus taluma.


From the ashes

and from the burnt debris

to song

we have risen.

The taste of ashes

does not leave the mouth

not for us, nor for them

who listen to us from a distance.

(From “Memais laiks,” Gaisma Ievainoja by Astride Ivaska, Daugava, 1982)

I was struck, as one is, who falls in love at first read. In reading whatever I could find about Ivaska, I learned that she had lost her father during the war. He had been a general in the Latvian army during WWII, and no more had been heard from or about him after he had been captured by the Soviets. (In later years, I learned Ivaska had learned of her father’s fate only after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Latvia regained her freedom. He had been taken to Moscow in 1941, where he was executed.)

Ivaska wrote often about her father, and her connection with him, what she referred to as her “only mirror” in an essay of her memories, now a broken mirror. He had a kind of mythic form to her, as most fathers do to their daughters. She recalls his quiet strength, and he seems to take on the stance of all lost Latvian soldiers: a man who fights perhaps a hopeless battle, yet with utmost courage and devotion to the cause of what is right. He is a soldier in an army that is the David against the Goliath of the Red Army. Only this battle is not to be won.

As most Latvian refugees, Ivaska (then Hartmane) escaped to camps for “displaced persons” in Germany, where they awaited visas to whatever free land would take them. As did most of her peers, she continued her disrupted education in Germany, while she waited, studying languages. In 1949, she married Estonian poet, Ivar Ivask, and later that year immigrated to the United States, first to Minnesota, then taking up residence in Norman, Oklahoma in 1967, where she taught Russian, German and French at the University of Oklahoma. Ivaska remained there until the death of her husband, then answered an old call to cross the ocean once again to live in Europe—for a time in Ireland, then returning again to the place of her birth, Riga, Latvia, where she lives today.

And wherever this poet went, I followed her steps through her poetry and her poetic prose. That first book I had read of her work, Solis Silos (“A Step in the Woods,” 1973), was a step that had led me to try my own hand at Latvian poetry. Shortly after, I had the privilege of meeting Ivaska at a workshop for writing Latvian poetry, and when, by end of seminar, I shyly handed her some of my work, she astounded me by taking me, then the ripe age of 17, seriously. The workshop was over, but Ivaska took my manuscript home with her to Oklahoma, sending it back to me a few weeks later with careful and honest notes in the margins. Discard this, rework that, and the golden glimmer on a page here and there of praise. The note with the manuscript encouraged me to submit my manuscript to a Latvian publisher called Celinieks in Ann Arbor, Michigan—with her recommendation. My first book of Latvian poetry, Mala Kausa (“In an Earthen Mug”) was accepted for publication when I was 19 years old. My lifelong love affair with poetry, in any language, took root in those days, and I have Ivaska to thank.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Anna Brigadere: Timeless Lessons

“Only he who feels responsibility can be both servant and ruler.”

~Anna Brigadere (1861-1933)

Originally published in Her Circle Ezine (April 2008)
by Zinta Aistars

Raised by Latvian parents who were World War II immigrants from Soviet-occupied Latvia, I was born in the United States, but thought of myself first and foremost as Latvian. Latvian, after all, was my first language, the only language spoken in my childhood home. But how to learn an entire culture, the essence of what it means to be Latvian, living in what my parents termed as exile?

Books. By age three, I read Latvian with ease. A phonetic language, learning the sound associated with any letter in the Latvian alphabet was a one-time lesson. Learn the rules of the language and it is your tool of communication, your lens on the Latvian culture. As I grew older, books were my key to understanding life and finding my own reflection and identity in it.

I don’t recall how the works of Anna Brigadere first came into my hands. Did someone give them to me? I think probably not. I remember creeping around the bookshelves in our home—the rooms were lined with them. Books were a part of the family and deserved a room of their own, although there were too many to contain in one room. The living room had bookshelves; the family room downstairs was filled with books, too. I would spend hours poking through the shelves, and if I pulled books loose and took them down, I often found more books tucked in back, like secret treasure. And, apparently, I found Annele among the books. Another little Latvian girl, much like me …

Annele is a diminutive form of Anna, and what I found was one of Anna Brigadere’s best known works, Trilogija, or the trilogy of three autobiographical novels about the growing up years of Annele. And I was mesmerized. Here was my key to the Latvian culture, indeed, the entire life sense of this tiny Baltic nation was compacted neatly right into the title of the first of three novels: Dievs, daba, darbs, or, God, Nature, Work. The second novel was titled, Skarbos vejos, or, In the Biting Wind, and the third, Akmenu sprosta, or, Trapped in Stone. The three novels took me on a journey through Annele’s life, beginning as a small girl on up into adulthood. Although the books were published in 1927, I nonetheless found them relevant.

Never mind that little Annele lived in the Latvian countryside, half a planet away from me. Never mind that she lived in a world half a century before mine. I found in this little girl an echo of myself, and through her, I discovered what it meant to be Latvian.

Anna Brigadere, through her alter ego child self, provided me my value system. A young girl—and later a woman—must live with integrity and honor, with respect toward a higher power, greater than self; with a deep respect for nature; and with an understanding that one’s chosen work is not just a means toward a paycheck, but one’s expression of honoring both self and others by being a productive member of society. Work should be a labor of love.

Brigadere’s books taught lessons without being didactic. These were timeless lessons, as I found out yet again when asked to teach a Latvian literature seminar just one summer ago. It was time to rediscover my childhood friend. In rereading her books, I found them as vital as ever, untouched by the passage of time, or changing of fashion, or shifting of world politics. In fact, I found her message even more relevant today. When asked at the seminar why one should read such “old books” in a contemporary world, I could only point out—here were the lessons we were calling “new age.” Truth does not change with time; it only solidifies. We live in a society where honor has too often been forgotten, while chasing shallow and temporary pleasures; where too many consider the self more important than community; and where work has become a means to compete with the Joneses, a daily grind that one does with utmost reluctance. Brigadere wrote about self-realization, however, and for her, work was the more contemporary Joseph Campbell’s “following one’s bliss.” She was an environmentalist long before most understood that nature is a living thing that sustains us, and when treated with disregard, She will rebel and spit us out. Brigadere wrote with an instinctive understanding of human psychology, one that modern day child-rearing manuals are now rediscovering, a kind of Super Nanny of her day (Brigadere worked many years as a governess). A child wants to be acknowledged, to feel useful, with a hunger for knowledge that must be fed, and a need for structure.

Brigadere was known for many other works besides her trilogy, although the value system she held dear found its way into all, in whatever genre. She became well known for her plays, many written for children, with the play, Spriditis, first performed in 1903 and later translated into English, German, Russian, Finnish and Estonian, her best known. It is a story about a little boy who longs to go off into the big, wide world and find a better life … only to grow up and realize all he ever needed and wanted was right at home. Brigadere was also a prolific poet, publishing several books of poetry. Her collections of short stories often addressed women’s issues.

Brigadere was much loved among her readers, but she remained a somewhat solitary figure throughout her life. She had a longstanding close friendship with her publisher, but never married. A nature museum has been established in the village of Tervete in southern Latvia, where she was born and spent the last decade of her life, writing. Carved wooden figures of her best known characters line paths through woods and fields that inspired her work. To wander there is to go back in time, yet find oneself solidly rooted in a sustainable future.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Approaching THE END: 2012?

by Zinta Aistars

"The 400-year paradigm of modern civilization, as currently conceived, has reached the end of its line. Without a radical reorganization and rapid transformation of global practices, there is a high probability that the human species will soon crash and burn, as so many species have before us."
~ Daniel Pinchbeck from The Mystery of 2012

The Sunday morning is so bright with sun, the cool August air so sweet, the breeze so soft on my skin, the silence enveloping me so peaceful, that to consider THE END seems not only improbable, but nearly impossible.

And yet.

And yet, not. When I page through the new catalog of book choices offered by my favorite online book club, my eye catches on the big bold teaser at the top of page 29: DO WE REALLY ONLY HAVE FOUR YEARS LEFT? The book advertised is called The Mystery of 2012: Predictions, Prophecies and Possibilities, by Gregg Braden et al. The teaser continues, "The ancient Mayan calendar predicted that 2012 would be the end of the world. But what exactly does that mean? Will we go out with a bang or a whimper? Will we witness the apocalypse or the birth of a new age of enlightenment? Twenty-five experts on the 2012 debate present their answers …"

A light shiver goes through me. Four years. One moment I am tempted to order the book, curiosity tugging insistently at me. The next, all too quickly, I turn the page. I am uncomfortable. The thought of not only my life, but the lives of my children, my family and friends, of life as we know it, coming to an end in such a short time—four years!—is almost beyond bearable. Never mind the bleak days when this and that goes awry in my life that I toss out the careless comment, oh, I wish I could just die! When recently facing the scare of a possible diagnosis of cancer, I knew better. I do not want to die. And even less, I cannot, cannot bear the thought of my loved ones passing away. Even at the very threshold of such a thought, my mind clenches like a closed fist and turns away. NO.

It was only last week, however, that I sat with my aging parents, both in their 80s, at their kitchen table, the same one at which I'd sat as a child, that I heard my mother whisper her fears of impending death. Even while her physical self ages and withers, her spirit is still vibrant and young. Young and hungry for more living. My father still dreams of all the masterpieces he will paint. The future still holds promise for them. They have attended the funerals of countless friends. Dropping like flies, my mother says, shaking her head and breathing a long, heavy sigh. I'm not ready.

Are we ever? Perhaps some of us are. Those with clean consciences, who have righted wrongs, made amends, subsequently lived good and loving lives, and made peace with their God. Who knows what fears lurk in even a good man's heart? The unknown, after all, is unknowable. We have only our fears and our faith to face it.

I'm not sure my answer to my mother was of any comfort to her. But I told her that there was a part of me that envied her and my father. Their lives have been long and rich. Even the experience of being refugees in the brutalities of war, when the Soviet army invaded their homeland, Latvia, and drove them forever away from the place where they had their deepest roots, and do still. They have managed to live good lives, nonetheless, with two daughters nearby, a wide circle of grandchildren, and a tightly knit social circle of their Latvian friends. They have had each other, for better or for worse, near 60 years as companions. Every night, they fall asleep spooning for warmth.

Come what may, I think, they have had a good share of the best life has to offer. My own? My heart has been broken more than it's been mended. In spite of various pretend lovers since, it has been over a decade since I have made love. I once had one of those pretend lovers say to me, at least you have known love. Indeed, I have. Although the saying, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, never fails to make me cringe. There is no settling for anything less once one has known true lovemaking. It is the sacred. All else will forever pale in comparison, leave the heart aching in memory. The casual embrace, the unions of the many lonely, the poor, crippled cousin of true intimacy—mind, spirit, body simultaneously entwined—whimpers and slinks away, back into the dark, seedy shadows from whence it came.

I think of my own children—the generation to come. Their children, as yet unconceived. While at times I have longed to see their future faces, there are increasingly more times that I fear for their futures. I consider the generations behind me, lying down with peace on their death beds, knowing their seed will thrive in the years ahead, know lives better than their own. Can we still hold such an expectation?

Four more years.

How might we change our lives now if we knew this to be true? Oh, the apologies made, the avalanche of apologies, this time, finally, sincere. I imagine those who would finally reunite and those who would finally separate to pursue a truer intimacy. I imagine the stacks of resignations at work places. I imagine the homes abandoned and the homes finally found. I imagine the weapons of war laid down while others would be taken up, if only in denial and fear.

Yes, I can imagine the fear. The air would reek of it. The churches and mosques and meditation chapels and synagogues would fill to brimming, the whispers and chants and murmurings of desperate or resolved prayer vibrating the air like a tangible frequency of electricity.

I can imagine the joy. In those who have suffered in silent martyrdom for too long, the hope of a finality the best news they could hear.

I imagine prisons falling open like cracked eggshells. The stampedes. Fists raised to the air, bellowing lungs of freedom cries, so quickly followed by wails of impending doom.

Four more years.

I imagine artists, myself among them, contemplating the tools of their art. Paper and pencil, the keyboard and blank pages. What still needs to be said? What does one write when the moment stands solitary and without another to follow it?

The artist contemplates his paintbrush. How many years did Michelangelo need to paint the heavens, the mere hand of God? Far more than four.

Perhaps only the musician will play, fingering the weeping strings of his guitar, yet once more dancing over the keys of his piano, because music is the straightest line to the heart. I imagine the sorrowful violin as the Titanic sunk into dark and chilly depths. Music will be the final art, singing us in our passage into the unknown.

Four more years. For those of conviction and faith, it would be the time to prepare for a wonderful and final journey. The heart would tremble with ecstasy.

But tomorrow is Monday, and it is still only the summer of 2008, and so we will clamp down the alarm with a groan when it sounds in the morning and rise from our varied beds, worldwide. Some of us will immerse ourselves in work of meaning; others will complain the entire day of their meaningless and unappreciated labor, and change nothing. Humanity will know the full spectrum of emotion and experience in one day, and the days to follow. Life and death and all that comes between. As always.

The possibility of THE END is undeniable. We cannot know. Even those of us with a deep faith cannot know. We can only wait and wonder. We can only hope to do what is right in this next moment, and the moment that follows, and so be ready for whatever comes. Countless more centuries of a better life … or an end to the agony. A new age of enlightenment … or simply the closing of a door. The last door. With no more doors behind it.

It is wise to be ready for either. 2012 may be no more spectacular than 2000, when many feared the changing of the zeroed century. Yet there is wisdom in living our lives, always, under any condition, as if there are only four more left. If nothing else, it sharpens the mind. It alerts the sleeping heart. It corrects the list of priorities. It teaches us to create a blessing in this moment, now, rather than to forever be anticipating that which may or may never come.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Courage to Speak the Truth at Any Cost: The Passing of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

by Zinta Aistars

It was 1974. I was just a kid, still with two more years ahead of me in high school.

The tears streaming over my face were angry ones, fierce with the sense of betrayal. No one had told me this part of my history. I had listened to all the stories my parents and grandparents had told me, I had attended Latvian school from age 3 through high school, sat through formal lectures and seminars, walked through war museums, paged through libraries. But not until I read Aleksandr Solzhenitysn’s Gulag Archipelago, a brutal account of Stalin’s concentration camps from 1918 to 1956, did I learn this part of my history—that Vladimir Lenin gained his power through the strength of an elite unit of Latvian soldiers. My God, my own countrymen? Could this be? Responsible for what would then follow, helping to plant seeds of what would become the Soviet Union, a system of bloodlust and terror? My own …

I read and reread the Gulag pages, the Russian dissident’s horrifying account of his treatment as a political prisoner under the rule of communism. The cruelest prison guards, he wrote, were the Latvians. My heart shattered inside me with shame and disappointment. When I confronted my parents with this new knowledge, their lips pinched and they nodded slowly. True. Yes. It was so. There were those among us who fought on the other side. The small elite unit that put Lenin into power was the military crème de la crème. And they were, in ethnic bloodline, my brothers.

The story of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn registered early on my radar. Born of parents who had come to the United States as WWII refugees as their native Latvia was swallowed by the oncoming Soviet army, I was accustomed to following political news from early childhood. I visited the Soviet Union the first time at age 15, with many return trips to follow. As much as someone looking in from the outside could—I understood. Which is, perhaps, not at all. But Solzhenitsyn filled in some marked gaps. And the role of my countrymen in the mad world he revealed to the rest of us, safe in our democracy, shook me to the core. For long months after reading the Gulag, I was unsure of my identity. That is, I knew who I was. Had always known. Latvian was my first language, the language we spoke at home. I hadn’t learned English until I attended public school. And still, I knew myself different. And gloried in it.

I gloried in the entirety of my Latvian identity. I had never felt that curious need to fit in as others my age seemed to; it was my status of difference that was most desirable. But now I had the sudden wish for the ground to open and swallow me up. My ethnic roots with me. I wished to be a girl without a country.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a hero. He was a political dissident who had put his dissident thoughts on paper, spoke them loud and clear, in defiance of one of the most fearsome governments that had ever existed. Instead of being silent after his imprisonment in the Russian gulag, his voice rang even louder, even more clear. His books spread like wildfire across all civilized nations, revealing the truth with courage. His first novel was A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, followed by others, including Cancer Ward about his experience of suffering through cancer under Soviet imprisonment. He wrote Warning to the West, and it was just that. He wrote, no matter how the Soviets tried to choke the voice out of him. But he was not to be silenced, and if the Soviets did not simply eliminate the problem by their most frequent, if unoriginal solution to problems—execution—it was by another powerful weapon that he remained alive. The world was watching. Solzhenitsyn, via manuscripts smuggled out to the free world, had captured the imagination of the free world, and odd as it was, it was not weaponry the communists seemed to fear as much as public humiliation. They were all about image. The best they could do was to free the dissident and exile him. Deny the man the home he loved so much that he would risk his life to save it.

For the next 20 years, Solzhenitsyn continued to write, and he devoted himself to writing the truth at any cost. He would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He would give a commencement speech at Harvard, and once again dare to speak the truth, this time speaking to the new generation of fresh faced Americans about the shallowness of American materialism. He would return to his Mother Russia decades later, greeted by the current totalitarian, Putin, who would commend him on his literary contribution to Russian literature … yet somehow leave out his most important work, Gulag Archipelago.

The man seemed nearly invincible in his armor coat of blatant honesty. Until last Sunday, August 2, 2008, when his lion’s heart finally failed.

Thinking of him, I look through my bookshelves for that battered old copy of the Gulag from my teen years. Solzhenitsyn put me into a tailspin. He made me question my identity. He made me question my personal figures of authority. He made me take a closer look at the history of my ancestors, take a microscope to my own government. He caused me to redefine the world in which I live. Today, I am proud to call myself Latvian. Because, like Solzhenitsyn, my people have survived occupation after occupation, terror after terror, slavery and oppression. We, too, have made mistakes. Not all of us are heroes. Like any family, mine too has its strong and weak characters, heroes and cowards, the good and the bad. Like most of us, I love my family nonetheless.

Solzhenitsyn, too, never stopped loving his country or his people, despite the blood on their hands. He taught me—that the most patriotic thing any of us can do, is to speak to our own about our shortcomings. At any cost. With fierce determination. Until we change.