Feed on
Posts
Comments

In December last year, I was going through some old pictures for two reasons. First, it was the time of the year when I reflect on the past. Second, I am working on a chapter of my fictionalized memoir, Angels in the Forest, in which I am ten, and I needed to look at pictures where I am about that age to remember details.

Here is one of those pictures. My sister Aleksandra and I in Zakopane, Poland.  It was one of the cities we visited on our family summer vacations. When I look at the picture today, I see it as cute and sweet, but it wasn’t this way on the day the picture was taken. I was reminded of it when I posted the picture on Facebook, and my sister almost immediately declared in her comment:

I remember that moment! I protested against the scratchy wool cape, and to punish everyone, especially mom and dad, I refused to smile!

Yes, this is true! I remember that I was utterly embarrassed to wear this Górale folk costume. I did smile, but I am not sure if I did so because I wanted to look nice in the picture, or if I wanted to please my parents, especially my mom, since my sister wouldn’t, or because someone had to smile in my childish understanding of the world. But I looked down—the ultimate sign of embarrassment for me, thinking, This is crazy!

I remember being painfully self-conscious. I didn’t know how to hold the “ciupaga,” the walking stick. I wondered if my knees would look too chubby (not to say fat) in the picture. This is crazy, I thought; I am too old for this! And I remember that the hat wasn’t stable on my head, and this prevented me from moving (very uncomfortable). I certainly knew how not to enjoy myself. To think of it, I was probably eleven or even close to twelve in this picture. The sensitive age would explain the embarrassment much better.

Today I look at the picture with additional, never considered or even expected before, perspective prompted by a question posted on Facebook by a friend:

Personally, I don’t know why anyone would leave trade Europe for America … I’d take Europe any day. In fact, just the other day both kids were begging to move to France.

This is a difficult question and a simple question at the same time. To answer the simple aspect of the question, I would say that most people come to America to find better opportunities—economic, political, religious, or cultural (maybe, sometimes). But to answer the difficult aspect of the question, I would have to say: I don’t know. Why do people leave Europe for America?

I am not entirely sure how the decision was made in my family–my sister left Poland for Germany; I left for America. Perhaps the answer lies in our multilingual upbringing? We grew up learning simultaneously Polish and Kashubian. When we were in fifth grade we started learning other languages, Russian, German, English, and French. Perhaps this was the beginning for us, and perhaps this was the end. The beginning of seeing ourselves as citizens of the world, and the end of seeing ourselves attached to the place of birth. We grew up in a cosmopolitan household, and this allowed us to perceived the world without limitations. My sister emigrated to Germany in 1991. The same year, I emigrated to the US.

More than twenty years have passed since we left Poland, but one thing never changed. We still use multiple languages to communicate. In fact, I don’t know any other family who uses three languages to communicate just between the members of one family.

Here is the breakdown:

My sister speaks German to her children, but Polish to her husband and me. Her husband uses German to communicate with their children, but Polish to communicate with my sister and me. My son speaks English to communicate with my husband and me, and Polish to communicate with my sister and her husband. My sister’s children use German to communicate with their parents, but English to communicate with me, my husband and my son. My husband uses English to communicate with my son and me, but German to communicate with my sister’s family. My late parents used German to communicate with my sister’s children, but Polish with the rest of us, except my husband.  Did I forget anything? Oh yes, my sister, as an obstetrician in Germany, also learned to speak Turkish (to make her patients more comfortable). None of us speak the same two languages perfectly, and this is why we use three languages to communicate between seven people. How crazy is that?

Frankly, I don’t like German that much. My sister doesn’t like English that much. Her husband doesn’t speak English. My husband doesn’t speak Polish. My son doesn’t speak German. My sister’s children don’t speak Polish.

And here is the crazies translation twist in the family from our last meeting: When my niece wanted to talk to my husband, my sister translated it from German to Polish to me. I translated it from Polish to English for my husband, and then back from English to Polish for my sister. My sister translated it from Polish to German for her daughter. Even though this way all the intricacies of all languages were preserved best, the enterprise of simple conversation became … adventurous to say the least.

How did we end up like this?

When I think of the picture of my sister and I in Górale folk costumes, remembering how crazy the entire event seemed to me at the time, I have to admit that the meaning of “crazy” ripened for me with time—and became to represent much more than I could ever imagine at ten, or eleven, or maybe even twelve.

To answer my Facebook friend question about leaving Poland: I am afraid I don’t have a definitive general answer to this question, but I know that my sister and I followed the language we liked most to find the place we belonged to … most. Am I my language? Am I the meaning of words I use? Am I the sound? Am I the rhythm, the eb and flow of the language I love most? Perhaps pondering these questions is the best answer I can offer today.

Photo in the post is from: HERE

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

When I was a child I used to stare quite often. This habit was considered annoying, impolite, and worrisome. Annoying, because it happened almost on daily basis. Impolite, because no one likes being monitored by another person, especially a child. Worrisome, because it was imposible to determine the source of the behavior. Was it desirable curiosity or lack of understanding that comes from slowness?

Sometimes I stared at people, sometimes at objects, sometimes even at the page of a book, mostly to ponder and admire the shape of letters and wonder if the sound of speech—the rising and falling of a voice—is somehow correlated to the wiggly shapes on paper. Of course, it had nothing to do with reading, and that’s why I could stare at one page for, as the adults warned, way (way, way) too long.

My favorite staring happened in my parents’ bedroom, as I lay on a daybed with my head hanging over the edge, and looked at the picture behind glass above my parents’ bed. The picture’s width was probably greater than my height, and the upper edge of the frame tilted forward, reflecting the window overlooking Wejherowska Street. Back then, in the 70s, cars were passing by rarely—maybe one every several minutes. I can’t decide if the stillness, the anticipation of a car, or the wavy movement in the glass when a car passed, was more appealing to me, but I know that my resignation of staring was prompted only by the surge of blood in my temples.

What exactly kept me staring? I didn’t know then, and perhaps today I am only trying to find out, as I sit on a deck right on the beach in Kitty Hawk, NC, staring at the ocean.

The ocean rushes to the shore, and I wait for the wave. I watch it bulging out of the imagined dark depths, and roll itself into a white hunchbacked ridge, and plunge back into the depths. The ocean comes and comes in waves and waves in constant constant sound. The ocean is like words on the page, the sound of the ocean is like the voice that speaks for what is on the page. The ocean is like a car passing by in waves and waves on the glass above my parents’ bed. I am there and here staring into something I can’t define, but it makes me strangely still and content. I suspect that the movement of the surface of the ocean comes from deep stillness of the depths, and I wonder about the center from which it all comes to me–in waves, in waves in constant constant coming.

Not surprisingly, I find a very similar experience described in a memoir, Lucky That Way by Pamela Gerhardt (University of Missouri Press, coming out in October).

Here is the excerpt:

Our stiff, Midwestern legs struggled on the uneven, soft sand as we made our way toward the crashing noise. I was 12 and had recently perfected the eye-roll every time my dad said something. Is there any greater child/parent distance than that of a 12-year-old girl and her father? But no one had warned me about the noise. Something powerful and immense stood before us, only a few yards away, and I forgot to remember to be cynical. Suddenly we were there, standing on the edge of the continent, our feet in the warm, foamy water, and I realized I was holding Dad’s hand.

For Gerhardt, the twelve year old girl sha was—oh, how I can imagine her!—was subconsciously transformed by the sound of the ocean to the point that she gravitated towards her father amid the distance she imposed—rightfully following the adolescent calling—between herself and him. 

Perhaps the movement and the sound are seductive. They bring me and the twelve year old Gerhardt to the center of stillness, deep within. And the only question remaining asks: Is the stillness in the depth of the ocean and the stillness in the depths of us the same? I want to imagine that they cross somewhere, and the precise point of crossing is the unexplainable center of the universe. I imagine the waves coming and coming to the point of crossing, and at the crossing everything stops to become the perfect stillness, the perfect depth, the perfect essence of everything. 

 

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Mother’s Day: May 12, 2013

Dear Mom,

The idea of writing a letter to you has been following me for years. At this point, I don’t even remember when I thought of it first. Was it three years ago? Maybe five? Maybe even ten.

These days, I mostly type on my laptop—sometimes thinking about the typewriter you had at work, in your big office. But this letter I am writing on a yellow pad, the way I used to write to you when you were alive.

I also decided to write in English. I figured at this point you probably speak all the languages ever known to humankind. How else can in be in heaven, right?

You passed away 13 years, 6 months, and 5 day ago. I still miss you.

There are so many things that happened since then. I am not sure where to start, but I know I want to tell you everything. Actually, come to think of it, I also want to talk to you about the things that happened when you were still alive, but I never had a chance to tell you about them or about what I thought.

You are probably wondering why I chose this day among all of the days that passed since your death. To be honest, I don’t have the answer. But I wonder if it had anything to do with the inhaler I received from Dr. Schieken two days ago. The feeling is strange, amazing, liberating. I finally feel like I am alive again. I can breathe fully!

You know, Maryland is not very good at this time of the year for people with allergies, but it is peculiarly beautiful. When I look at the lash green surroundings, I remember how much you loved trees, and how you believed that the green color has calming, relaxing properties.

Anyway, this inhaler opened my lungs the way they were’t open for years—perhaps even from the time before you passed away. I feel light and energetic, and sort of calm and less afraid. I can read and write for hours and I barely get tired. These past two days reminded me of how it used to be when I was younger.

I want to say, “Don’t worry about me being afraid,” but I would like to believe that in the afterlife we won’t concern ourselves with such a small perspective. I want to tell you about “afraid” only because of what you said about leaving Poland. Remember? You insisted on me coming back at some point. You even made me promise you that. And I did, but only to make you happy, and help you die peacefully. Besides, Dad asked me to promise you that, because Ola refused. She said, I am not coming back, and I am not going to lie about it.

I am not sure if I was lying back then. Maybe I wasn’t sure if I were going to go back to Poland. I don’t remember anymore, but after 20 years in the United States, I know I am not going back. At the same time, I have come to question the benefits of leaving one’s birth place for many reasons, and this is where the word “afraid” plays its role.

I have observed many immigrants, including myself, being “afraid” without any particular reason, and I wonder if it comes from being (or feeling) uprooted. After all, nothing, starting with the taste of food and ending with social interaction, is familiar to those who come here from all over the world. Many form communities and stay together, like Poles in Chicago or on Greenpoint in New York, or Koreans, or Mexicans, and so on. It’s like they want to be here, in the United States, and there, in their old country, at the same time. Some of them don’t even learn English (can you imagine?) and surround themselves with everything and anything that reminds them of their old country.

I am asking the question you would ask: Excluding severe political or religious circumstances, is it better to stay in the place one was born? Considering also those who gain here financial freedom and go back to their countries of origin to retire, why would they go back after decades of being here? What makes them go back? Some even leave their children (adult children, but still…) behind to go back. Why?

Perhaps what influences us in our formative years becomes the fiber of our being, and makes us remember the one and only true taste of bread from the bakery around the corner? Perhaps deep inside we want to reconnect with the smell of home when coming from a hot summer day we entered a cool hallway filled with a scent of our favorite soup or pie? Or maybe we want to go back to the lanscape that greeted us daily—a long row of linden trees in the hot moist sweet air of the afternoon? Or is it the rough skin of someone’s hand who patted our cheek? Here, now, now, have a piece of chocolate, the person said.

I don’t know, but I know that I want to think about it.

With all my love to you, Mom, until the next time,

Danuta

 

Tags: , , , , ,

 

Today: July 17, 2013

The August issue of the Rolling Stone published a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston marathon bomber on it’s cover with a subtitle: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.

This is a promising beginning of a much needed national conversation.

April 29, 2013 (post below)

The morning after 9/11 attacks we woke up to a different world. Suddenly, not only have we become a part of the terrorized world, but also we were introduced to questions we couldn’t quite formulate. Most of us here in the U.S. started with, Why? Then, Who are these people?

The same questions resurfaced on the Patriots’ Day, April 15, when two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding over two hundred people.

Yesterday, April 27, The New York Times published an article by Deborah Sontag, David M. Herszenhorn and Serge F. Kovaleski, titled A Battered Dream, Then a Violent Path, in which the authors are tracing the lives of the two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for the bombings, to answer the same questions, Why? and Who are these people?

A science journalist, an author, and Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey, John Horgan wrote a brave and provocative piece for the Scientific American, How Can We Condemn Boston Murders but Excuse U.S. Bombings of Civilians? which sparked an avalanche of comments from the ones that challenged Horgan’s position to the ones that tried to understand this, to say the least, uncomfortable point of view.

In the midst of the TV coverage, articles on the web, and most of all thousands of comments from readers, I am asking the same questions, and thinking of the edge that pushes some to commit the unspeakably atrocious acts of violence against civilians.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we will never know. Not because it is a mystery, but because there is no one answer, or to be precise, there are many answers, and they vary from incident to incident. Probably, in many cases we will see Islam being used like a shield that is to ensure the “nobility” of the cause, but I would risk to suspect that the religion is only a smoke screen, and the edge is somewhere/something else.

Perhaps the edge for Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the unexpected end of his boxing career. Or maybe it was the long waiting for his American citizenship? Perhaps it was the fact that he was practically jobless, with his wife working up to 80 hours a week to support the family, while he was taking care of their 3 year old daughter. Perhaps it was his flamboyant taste is clothes that was not satisfied? Perhaps the reason was different and we will never find out. Perhaps he himself would not be able to answer this question truthfully.

And what was the edge for the younger brother, Dzhokhar? Was it his fascination, maybe even devotion to his older brother? I can imagine the bond, the love that drives an innocent, naive man to follow the strong and convincing one. How many days, how many nights did they spend together talking about life? Did they talk about what is really important, and why we are here on this planet? We don’t know what questions they explored, but we can imagine which one of them provided the passionate answers. 

The bombings in Boston reminded me of 9/11, and brought me to the same place of sadness and hopelessness. I reached for my novel, To Kill the Other, in which I explore the “makings” of a terrorist, to find an excerpt in which the main character, Taher, is driven over the edge with something that happens in his life, and decides to join Al-Qaeda. 

Here is an excerpt from To Kill the Other, and my interpretation of the “makings” of a terrorist. This excerpt shows a vision or a dream Taher had after the incident that pushed him over the edge.

A dead man is like a piece of wood or a rock you throw in the water, it’s an object—like there was no life before. Nothing stays with the body, with you; nothing stays after you, except a piece of wood or a rock. 

Is there a life or is there only my life?

Is there a truth or is there only my truth?

Is there God? Or is there only my God?

Is there evil or is there only their evil?

That night Taher lay on the floor in the room of meetings. The room was dark; he couldn’t see the walls. The floor wasn’t obsidian the way it was before. It was translucent and illuminated with lights, and he lay in the illustrious center.

He didn’t have to look down to see everything. It simply came to him and filled his hollowed body, seeping through his skin that separated the space from here to there. The outside of his skin was cold, and the inside of his skin was hot, refining the time, differentiating now from then.

The city buildings made of glass and mirrors stood on an island surrounded by waters connected with sky. The same clearness and the same lightness of both made them seem one, with no beginning and no end; with the horizon appearing and disappearing in the bird’s eye.

The gates of the world encircled the city on an island, opening and closing, inviting and refusing, throughout the ages, throughout the millennia.

On the south sphere of the city there were the gates of Cairo with aged Ahmed leaving the prison. He says, “I didn’t recognize you. You are someone else, Taher.”

Am I betraying myself? Am I betraying my brothers? Where do I begin and where do I end? Who am I?

On the east sphere there was the yellow basalt Gateway of India in Mumbai with British troops—the First Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, the last ones to leave India. The date on the banner read February 28, 1948.

On the west there was Madrid’s Puerta del Sol with the square and the clock whose bells mark the traditional eating of the twelve grapes—with each new beginning, a new year. In the middle of this square stood the old watchmaker from Afghanistan. He was holding a shield made of clock dial with no arms, just Roman and Arabic numbers running in a snail trail from the center of the shield all the way to the edge.

And on the north sphere of the city was the Crane Gate at the Baltic City of Gda´nsk with Nazi soldiers marching in perfect order, their boots echoed on the cobblestones of Długa Street. They lead the sea of naked men, women, and children with David’s stars tattooed on their chests, above their hearts. Behind them another sea of men, women, and children followed under signs in red, “Solidarity!” They all sang “Ave Maria.”

The soldiers going to battle were everywhere, among them girls with blonde hair, blue eyes, and such young, young faces. Their uniforms were encrusted with thousands and thousands of tiny mirrors reflecting the explosion fires that lit up the night sky. They screamed as they charged into battle.

Taher saw mothers breastfeeding their infants in a hospital on a hill in Cairo, and a sea of cars flooding the narrow paths of the metropolis below them. Their husbands stood with armfuls of white roses, waiting for the bells to give a signal for the coffins to be lowered into the moist soil of the grave—for their children.

And there was one grave with a headstone that read Marek Aaron Abdullah Kowalski, and under the name was the poem Taher remembered from their last meeting in the park in New York City.

Lying in the center of the bright pool, Taher heard himself reading the poem. His voice was pure. Taher means pure in Arabic. It rose from Taher’s skin to his throat, becoming an extension of his flesh, like truth—easily defined. The words unwound in a language understandable, yet heard for the first time. English? Polish? Arabic? German? Russian? None of them and all of them at the same time.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man …

Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:

There will be no other end of the world.

There will be no other end of the world.

—Czeslaw Milosz, “A Song On the End of the World”

Pictures in this post are from: (1) here, (2) here, (3) here 

Tags:

I am in Boston for the 2013 AWP Conference. Months of preparations (or thinking about preparation intensely, if you know what I mean) finalized in two talks.

The first one is for a panel, “Writing in the Diasporas Across Languages and Cultures.” My portion is titled, “Angels in the Forest, my past in the present.” The panelists include: Domnica Radulescu, Biljana Obradovic, Stella Radulesku, and Ezzat Goushegir.

The second one is for a panel, “Russian, Jewish, Polish, and American Poets in Translation: Cultural Contexts.” My portion is titled, “Every Langauge Has its Own Silence.” The panelists include: Ewa Chrusciel, Danuta Borchardt, Fanny Howe, and Tony Brinkley.

 

“Angels in the Forest” is about the difficulties associated with writing about the history of my family, and the history of Poland. It’s about my grandfather, Joseph King, and how he influenced my upbringing with his Second World War stories. It’s a story of what he witnessed during the war, how he lost his mind because of it, and how he became a mystic in order to find himself in the new reality of the communist country after the war. The story touches upon the parallels I see between my grandfather and myself; how I follow his footsteps, after rejecting his choices; about how history shapes us, and how the dead influence us in ways we can’t fully understand.

“Every Language Has Its Own Silence” is about reading Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska in Polish and English. In this talk I deliberate about what is lost in translation, and what is gained. I analyze the silence that exists between the words of a poem, and holds the meaning of who we are shaped by the past. It’s also about the silence of who we want to be in the present and the future, how we shape ourselves with the freedom of a new, second language.

 

 

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

One of the Christmas memories I have from my childhood is cooking or baking with my mom.

Here is an excerpt from To Kill the Other, in which making pastry, remembered by Marek, a Polish character in the novel, is based on my own experience.

“I like the powdered ones because they remind me of snow,” Marek said finally.

“Snow? You like winter?” Katie asked surprised.

“Snow has nothing to do with winter,” Marek answered slowly, withdrawing inward.

[…]

“You know, it’s funny how everything always somehow comes back to childhood,” Marek said, taking a deep breath.

“Like what?”

“Like the powdered donuts,” he continued.

“Hmm,” she said, waiting for him to continue.

“When I see this white powder on donuts, I see myself better.”

He wiped his mouth and continued his story while folding the napkin slowly.

Katie crossed her arms as if hugging herself, knowing what was to come.

“Somehow it always goes the same way for me.” “Why snow?” Katie asked.

“My mom used to make paczki.”

“What’s that?”

“Similar to donuts, but without the hole inside and … and just different, really … completely different, denser, not as sweet, a bit flaky, and with a teaspoon of thick strawberry jam inside.” Marek closed his eyes and tilted his head back. “First she would mix the yeast with a bit of hot water. It was live yeast. It was grayish, chalky, and cold. We would buy it in the store just a block away from our apartment. The lady in the store would cut it with a long knife and weigh it on a scale with a vertical arrow swinging from side to side. I remember we used fifteen decagrams for this recipe.

“I remember my mom checking everything twice—the weight of the yeast and the price. I loved eating it. My mom always objected, saying that I would get sick from it. But I just loved the texture melting on my tongue.

“I remember she would cover the yeast mixture with a linen cloth and put it on the radiator in the hallway for the yeast to rise. She would always tell me not to peek under the cloth because lifting the cloth could make the yeast cool off and drop to the bottom. I always thought if I did it slowly enough and just for a little while the yeast wouldn’t notice. I was sure the yeast could somehow notice things since it was alive.” Marek smiled.

“Making the dough was always fun. We would laugh and knead the dough for eternity. We had so much fun. Then she would ask me to form these dough balls with my hands. She said my hands were the perfect size for it. I was five or six. Then she would make holes in the balls with her finger and put the jam inside. Then she would close it and flatten the balls to make them look more like flying saucers. Finally she would gently put them, one by one, in deep frying oil, asking me to stay away from the pan. She didn’t want the hot oil to splash on me accidentally.”

“You talk a lot about your mom,” Katie whispered.

“Only when I see something that reminds me of her … which is … about … always.” Marek opened his eyes.

“What about the snow?”

“I still remember her hands whitened with the powdered sugar we would sprinkle on our paczki. We used a small aluminum container that had tiny holes in the bottom. It looked like snow to me. She always allowed me to do it, to use the container. And of course I would make it snow all over the table. ‘Mom, it’s snowing, it’s snowing!’ I would scream. “‘Just like outside. Look! Look!’ she would say in such an excited voice. We would look out the kitchen window to see snow coming slowly in the pools of streetlights at night. I would make it snow on her hands, on her wedding ring, on her other ring with a little pale pink stone.” Marek stopped for a while.

“Her eyes meant the world to me. I feel her so close sometimes,” he whispered. “Especially when I see Julie. My little Julie looks so much like my mom. Sometimes I imagine how much fun it would be to see them together.”

“Does Julie have the same attitude?” Katie smiled.

“Yep, she is six, going on sixteen,” Marek said, smiling back.

“And she has been going on sixteen ever since I can remember,” Katie said, reaching for her coffee.

“Since she was one year old.” Marek nodded.

They both stared at the box of Dunkin’ Donuts for a long while, not saying anything.

“You know, I just realized how much I love this country,” Marek said, breaking the silence.

“Why do you say that?” Katie took another sip of her coffee.

“This is the best place on earth. I can say what I want. I can get what I want. And more than I want!” He laughed at his own words. “It seems that just to want is enough to find a way to achieve anything.”

“It’s not as wonderful as you think,” Katie said almost sadly. “It’s not as wonderful as you see it.”

“No, you don’t see it because you haven’t seen enough in your life. It doesn’t get any better than that, believe me,” Marek defended his point.

“You are so idealistic. It’s so refreshing in a sense. But—you know there is so much crap going on … just think about politics,” Katie argued.

“Sure. Like it’s not going on anywhere else in the world,” Marek bridled.

“Well, it’s not an excuse to have it here, right?” Katie said forcefully.

“And who is the idealistic one?” Marek laughed.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Katie admitted.

They both fell silent for a while, searching for something in their thoughts.

“I told you the snow has nothing to do with winter,” Marek spoke up first.

“You were right.” Katie nodded, smiling.

 

Tags: , , ,

Working on To Kill the Other took me places. No, I didn’t really travel by foot or plane, but I read as much as I possibly could. Hoped to understand something I couldn’t even name—a new culture, and a religion largely unknown to me called Islam—something that appeared to be elusive, strange, and deeply foreign.

 

 

I started working on my novel almost immediately after 9/11, and the first book I read was a war memoir, Soldiers of God: With the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, by Robert D. Kaplan, a renowned  journalist. The book is an extraordinary account of Kaplan’s travels with the brave “soldiers of God,” Islamic  guerrilla fighters, who fought the occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s.

Kaplan’s account of the months of living with the mujahidin offers a deeply personal perspective. And 11 years after, I don’t remember many details from the book, but I remember how Kaplan, with every day of his extraordinary journey,  marveled at the astounding landscape of Afghanistan (like the Panjshir Valley in the picture above), missed his wife, and grew closer to the guerrilla fighters.

For example, in a moment of bonding, Kaplan wanted to show a photo he carried of his wife to one of the mujahidin. There was one problem: The image showed his wife standing at the shore of an enormous lake wearing western clothing that revealed her arms and legs. And Kaplan was afraid that this might offend the mujahid, whose religion forbids a man from looking at the face of a woman other than his wife or sister.

Finally, after many weeks of hesitation, Kaplan decided to show the picture. The reaction of the mujahid surprised him. The mujahid said: “So much water!” The buildup of Kaplan’s hesitation and the mujahid’s reaction underline unexpected moments of revelations—how much we can discover about the other in the midst of our misconceptions.

The mujahidin fought the Soviets in their war in Afghanistan for almost ten years. Finally, with foreign involvement and U.S. aid, the mujahidin succeeded in 1988 at forcing the Soviets to withdraw. Afghanistan then fell into a civil war and the unprecedented tyranny of the Taliban rule that followed.

Today, more than a decade after 9/11, Afghanistan is different—and Afghanistan is the same. It is a country devastated by decades of war and the neverending agony of tribal conflicts, and still, in many places, the Taliban rules. Our military is still there, and, in my opinion, it is questionable if leaving is the best solution. Even though I, like many others, want our soldiers back home, I understand the consequences of withdrawal. After all, we went through the same history lesson in the 1980s. The more my skepticism grows, the more I look up to those who do not share my conviction, and this summer and had the privilege of meeting one such person, Jamie Bell. 

Jamie Bell, who first studied criminal law at the University of Delaware, then joined the Marines, and after serving ten years and two tours in Iraq, became an Apache attack helicopter pilot for the Army. I met him during his homecoming from Afghanistan in Morristown, New Jersey.

Bell looks at Afghanistan from a different perspective. For him there is hope, “definitely there is hope.” He admits that the biggest challenge is fighting tribal relationships, but this too can be overcome. In answer to a question on Afghanistan’s prospects by local journalist Kevin Coughlin, Bell said: “We build the ground for peace, but it will take a commitment of our government and our citizens.” Bell believes that decades of war and devastation can be overturned, if we continue on the path. 

With time my memory won’t preserve the details of that evening, but it will safeguard the feelings: Bell’s unstoppable energy, his joyful spirit, his openness, professionalism, and his commitment to his beautiful wife Lidia and their children. What surprised me most was Bell’s demeanor, something I will never forget. He displayed an unbroken spirit and an untarnished faith in the mission of our country. And talking with Lidia, I will always remember the grace and devotion she exhibited. She is the rock that makes everything else possible.

By sharing his wife’s picture, Robert D. Kaplan discovered that his hesitation was based on presumptions and expectations that turned out to be inaccurate. By talking to Jamie Bell, I learned that giving up on presumptions (no matter how strong my argument might be), I too might find an unexpected relief or perhaps even epiphany, and discover a new source of pride. Maybe, I say today with hope, but without the conviction one might wish for in the end. Not yet.

To learn more about Jamie Bell’s homecoming from Afghanistan go HERE.

Photo in this post is from: here

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is this the biggest fear of every writer or is it just my fear? Every day I carry this black hole in me—that I won’t be able to write again!

As I eat my breakfast, as I read, today for example, The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris, as I teach, as I shop for eggs and milk, as I iron my sheets, as I spend intimate moments with my husband, the black hole lurks at me and says: there is nothing, there is nothing in here.

Every time when it happens I know that the black hole is right, and I know that the black hole is wrong.

There is nothing in there and there is everything in there at the same time. There is nothing when I am away, and there is everything when I am back.

Being back means here, sitting at my desk, sitting on my bed, sitting on the deck, sitting on the couch, sitting at the dining room table, sitting in Starbucks, sitting in the Nordstrom Cafe in Columbia Mall, sitting at Barnes and Noble on Route 103, sitting in my office at College Park. Sitting. Sitting and waiting to slow down, to become quiet, to forget, to remember, to become a vessel for the voices of my past. Then the black hole closes, disappears, goes away—for that moment.

Have you ever, once in your life, sat down and wrote nothing. I mean nothing, Danuta? Even once? The answer is, No. Not even once, I answer myself. Okay, so what’s the problem? The problem is in thinking about writing. When I think about writing, it seems impossible. When I write, I just write.

So, don’t think about writing. Duh, I want to say to myself. It’s not that simple, I say back, I have to think about it. I have to think about the subject between writing. So, think about the subject, but don’t think about writing. Duh, I want to say to myself. You see, I say back, it’s not that simple. The problem actually lies in “too much.”

Too many memories, too many books, too many articles, too much history, too many people, too many feelings, too much pain, too much joy. The swelling of my heart and constant migraines. How can one even live like this? I ask. I don’t know, I answer, but you do, Danuta, don’t you?

How many words today? Seven hundred and seventeen. Not nearly enough, I say. Well, not much, I answer, but it’s something. It’s not nothing, right? Perhaps, I say. How good is it? I don’t know. At this moment I feel I moved the story forward. The passage is not bad. You see?  Not bad is good, I say. Well, I am not sure, I answer. You don’t have to be sure, I say. Show up for sitting and write. For now, I say.

Photograph via Flickr by Alice Carrier

Tags: , , , , ,

 

Last summer came and went. I can’t quite tell how it happened, but I know I have written twenty five thousand words of my next book, Angels in the Forest, which is based on the life of my grandfather, Joseph King. I have also written about five thousand words of another fictionalized memoir, Friends, based on very recent events from my life.

I thought it would be easier, comes to my mind first. And then, how come I struggle with what I know so well? Intrinsically, one could say.

Today, after writing those twenty five thousand words of Angels, I come back to the beginning, and reexamine what have been already reexamined dozens of times.

What is the purpose of a beginning, anyway? Except that it has to be rewritten dozens and dozens of times to test the writer’s endurance. Is it to tell the reader what the book is all about? Or, perhaps to show how clever one is with words. Maybe it is a place where the writer should intrigue or even shock the reader?

As I was pondering all the different possibilities, I came across an article in the latest issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, In the Beginning by Richard Goodman, who asks: “What can, and should, an opening do, besides being irresistible?”

Irresistible? I said out loud in an empty room. Eureka, came to my mind next. Or maybe it was: Epiphany!

And here are some examples Goodman gives:

“Call me Ishmael.”

“It is truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possesion of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“None of them knew the color of the sky.”

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

Each of these openings fulfills, in its own way, the task of being irresistible. Herman Melville, Jane Austin, Stephen Crane, and James M. Cain each do it in his or her own way, of course. Each first line has a compactness and confidence, a sense that there is more here and that the “more” will be worth your while.”

Goodman’s interpretation makes sense to me. Of course, that’s convincing. Finally, I want to say, and thank you!

Where should I start? What part of my story is irresistible? Let’s see, and a long pause, let’s see, and another pause. After a while the story rolls itself through my mind the way it always does, making space for nothing but itself.

Should I start with my grandfather swiveling in the garden with his arms up in the air, his eyes closed, telling me the story of the flying angels? Or, should I start with one of the arguments my grandmother, Angela, had with him: Stop telling her stories! She doesn’t need to know about the war! She is just a child! Or, should I start with my mother, her hands kneading a pastry dough, whispering to me, her face close to mine, Don’t listen to grandpa, he makes up silly stories. None of it is true, you know. Perhaps, I should start with …

What does it mean irresistible? I don’t really know, but I remember the feeling of picking up a puppy. It was the summer after I turned one in March. My steps were still shaky, the puppy’s steps were still shaky. But we found each other, and the puppy didn’t resist when I shakily picked him up, and held him not knowing what to do next.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Your questions about remembering and forgetting and “re-creating” are ones that I’ve thought about too as I’ve worked through my poems and essays about my parents. An interviewer, Okla Elliot, once asked me the following question: “In Lightning and Ashes, you make use of what seems like direct family sources (such as the poem “A Letter to my Mother from Poland, October 4, 1952″). What portion of these source materials is rooted in actual familial documents, what part from family lore, and what part poetic creation?”

The answer to the question wasn’t easy, and I hope you forgive me for going on so long, but here’s what I said to him:

It’s a central question. When I started writing my poems about my parents back in the late 1970s, I was in grad school and very conscious of the ways memory can be manipulated and tricked out for various literary effects. My wife was working on rhetoric and the art of memory, and I was doing a dissertation on the postmodern sense of the self and how it plays out in fiction. One of the books I was writing about was Pynchon’s V., and one of my favorite quotes in that book came from what Pynchon said about Fausto Majistral and this character’s autobiographical writing. Here’s the quote:
“Now memory is a traitor: gilding, altering. The word is, in sad fact, meaningless, based as it is on the false assumption that identity is single, soul continuous. A man has no more right to set forth any self-memory as truth than to say ‘Maratt is a sour-mouthed University cynic’ or ‘Dnubietna is a liberal and madman.’”

The first poem I wrote about my parents is called “Dreams of Warsaw,” and it deals with their memories of the war and my own oldest childhood memories of my father’s telling me about the war. Right there, as the literary analyst I was training to be, I could see a lot of potential for complexity, layering, and manipulation of memory. There’s my parents’ years in the camps, my father’s retelling of that story, my mother’s retelling of that story, my childhood memories of their retellings, and then my adult attempt to place all of that within the context of my life and of course in the context of a poem.

Over the next 25 years, as I worked up the poems that went into Lightning and Ashes, I’ve had to deal with this nexus of memories, and it’s hard to say that there is a certain definite portion that is from actual family history, family lore, or my poetic creation. All three come together to varying degrees in various poems. There are some poems like “My Mother Reads My Poem “Cattle Train to Magdeburg’” that come almost completely from my mother’s telling in her own words about what actually happened. And the poem takes issue with my earlier poem “Cattle Train to Magdeburg” (based on my childhood memories of what my dad said about how she was taken to Germany by the Nazis) so that she in large part in “My Mother Reads” is trying to get at her own truth of what happened. When my mother read “Cattle Train to Magdeburg,” she told me what was wrong with my earlier poem, and I wrote it down. 90% of the poem is her words in
English about her experience.

There’s very little that I did to the poem beyond breaking her statements into lines and stanzas and cutting out one significant detail from her telling that I thought would cause the reader to ask unnecessary questions about what happened to her.

That’s one extreme. The other is the poem that is essentially fiction. The prose poem you ask about — “A Letter to my Mother from Poland, October 4, 1952″ – is not based on an actual letter. In fact, I never read any of the many letters written to my mother by her sister Sophie about what it was like in Poland for my Polish relatives after the war, after the Soviet takeover of Poland. I knew about these letters, of course.

As a child, I remember my mother receiving them. She was a private woman, and she could not share her grief with anyone. She would get these letters and take them into the bedroom and read them there, after closing the door. I would stand on the other side of the door sometimes and listen to her weeping as she read the letters about it was like in Poland after the war. I would beg her not to cry through the closed door. Toward the end of my mother’s life, when I would visit her to get her papers and things in order, I asked her where the letters were. I knew she had kept them and added new letters as they still occasionally came from Poland. I was shocked by her response to my question. She had destroyed them, all of the letters that came from her family in Poland.

The “Letter to My Mother from Poland” poem is my attempt to recreate one of these destroyed letters. The description of the hunger and poverty in the first stanza, the dreams of my grandmother who was raped and killed by the Nazis, the wish for reunion—all of that was invented for the letter, but the invention of course was never complete invention. My father would sometimes reference the letters when I was a child. He’d mention the poverty or the hunger or the loneliness of being separated from the family that my mother read about in these letters. These things were part of the truth of these letters, and I tried to get this truth into this poem and into the other poems I wrote about my parents.

There was a Polish writer named Jozef Mackiewicz who said that “Only the truth is interesting.” And I believe that, but the truth is sometimes hard to convey. Sometimes the truth has to get heated up (embellished, transformed, jazzed up).

For me, Tim O’Brien’s essay “How To Tell A True War Story” gets at something important about telling a war story. Sometimes the facts themselves just don’t convey the horror that you would hope they convey. Here’s an example: 50,000,000 people died in WWII. I can tell that fact to a hundred people, one after another, and they probably won’t react much, not emotionally at least, maybe not even intellectually. I need to tell them something more. I need to tell them about these dead people in a way that will carry the weight of 50,000,000. I need to tell about my mother and the letters she used to get from her sister and what they talked about, the death of their mother, the guilt they felt for being alive, the sense of emotional and physical hunger they were left with after the war, the yearning for some kind of spring that would give them peace from their memories.

I don’t know if this was what was actually in the letters my mother received, but it is the truth that they carried for her.
_________
The entire interview appears at http://asitoughttobe.com/2011/12/25/from-the-ashes-an-interview-with-john-guzlowski/

Older Posts »