Thursday, June 30, 2011

Loren's Way of Seeing

"Somewhere over the rainbow." Loren just might be there (beautiful photo of an exquisite rainbow near St. Teresa's beach, FL, by Linda Falmlen).

I am not a poet, but I went through a phase when I wrote a poem for my mom, one for Loren, and one for my sister. I don’t know what propelled me. I haven’t done much with poetry since then, because it doesn’t feel comfortable, and I’m never satisfied with the results. I stick to narrative writing.

But you know Loren is always with me, always on my mind. Among his belongings was this poem I had written for him, which he cherished, as I cherished him. It was written before he had an Asperger Syndrome diagnosis, an homage to his special insights and different ways of seeing the world. It’s what I valued most and what I miss about Loren, will always miss. As a poem it’s lacking, but I think it gets at some of the qualities that made Loren special.

For Loren

He sees life through a softer lens
Crafted by a goddess. A kinder way of being
In a hardened world unseeing.

Looking at a blue-black sky
Illuminated by a million stars
I asked him why they converge
into constellations, as if connected
By invisible threads
in cosmic conversations.

Like a prism decomposing light, he tells me
What he’s seeing.
The puzzle of the universe, he says,
The mystery of believing.
The ultimate complexity. The ultimate simplicity,
The goddess at her weaving.

A crystalline moment caught in time
When I understood he’s like no other.

I saw beneath the obvious
Into the soul of my dear brother.

I was reminded of the poem recently, as I was finishing up Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The odd central character, Lisbeth Salander--brilliant, strange, non-communicative--might be an Aspie. The other main character, Mikael Blomkvist, a highly controversial and persistent journalist, tells her she is “the most brilliant researcher” he’s ever known. But he can’t figure her out. No one can. She's a creatively crafted character, that's for sure, and we want to know more about her.

At one point near the end of the gruesome mystery, which the duo figure out together, Blomkvist tries to elicit a response from Lisbeth, complimenting her on her photographic memory and her gift of research, but he doesn’t get anywhere. “Asperger’s syndrome, he thought. Or something like that. A talent for seeing patterns and understanding abstract reasoning where other people perceive only white noise (page 552).”

I have never seen this kind of description of Asperger’s, but it resonated on some level. Although all Aspies are different, it gives another insight into an Aspie's way of thinking. Loren did have a gift of grasping large concepts, like the origins and consequences of patriarchy, as well as remembering the details of history, sports, and politics that most of us forget. It’s a gift like no other. I think I was trying to get at this idea in my poem for Loren. I wish I could tell him now how valued he was, how special, how loved. But another poem will not do. Nothing will.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hines Farm: Blues Mecca

At famed Hines Farm, in Swanton, Ohio, west of Toledo; below, a 2006 Blues Awards poster (yahoo image). It could be harmonica player Billy Branch, who plays lots of festivals and has won many awards. Sure looks like a Blues icon.
The old farm in the Toledo, Ohio countryside, in the town of Swanton, way behind the airport, is hopping. Cars fill the lawn and people wander in. From the looks of it, initially, many of the folks were born in the 1940s and 1950s, like me, and grew up with the Blues. Blues music, that is. I’m instantly at home, but we are early birds, and more people are behind us. I’m with my daughter Elissa and her friend Scott, who lives near the farm and knows the rural area well. It's all new to me. The smell of barbeque and the sound of music, the joyful sounds of a woman on saxophone accompanied by fabulous keyboards, guitar and bass, fill the cool night air.

I’m at Hines Farm, a famous Blues mecca from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, when great names like BB King and John Lee Hooker starred, along with local blues artists like Art and Roman Griswold and Curtis Grant. Some jazz heroes made their appearance from time to time, too, like Otis Redding and Count Basie (City Paper, 10 November 2010, article by Matt Desmond and Scott Recker). The yellowed walls of the old barn's spacious interior are filled with faded photos, posters and memorabilia telling the story. I take it in.

The Blues: Songs of labor, loss, hardship. Born of sorrow on plantations and cotton fields in the deep American south. Songs of deliverance and hope, forged out of African roots and the American experience of slavery and carried North with sharecroppers and the grandchildren of slaves, who fled their native South in search of better opportunities. Songs of “The Great Migration” of the mid-20th century, which gave birth to the “urban blues" and inspired jazz legends. Two great American cultural traditions. True American music, gifts to the world.

Blues artist Willie Dixon reminds us, in a PBS documentary (see note below): “The blues are the roots; everything else is the fruits.” Both the roots and the fruits are with us still, thanks to places like Hines Farm. And as my friend Jim Fahey noted, these old juke joints are rural places, pathways from Nachez and Memphis to Swanton, from the Delta to northern farms. For these migrants the dream of land ownership, of being their own bosses, never died, nor did their songs of freedom.

I lived in Toledo for almost 20 years before leaving for Washington, D.C. in 1985; raised my family here, taught at the University, worked in the community. But I had never been to Hines Farm. How did I miss it?

Maybe because in the 1970s Hines Farm fell victim to airport expansion, super highways and suburbanization. It was as if the music died, people remember. But not for long. In 1978 Henry Griffin, who grew up in the once-thriving and lively black farming community there, bought the Hines’ farm and started the music going again. Griffin also remembers the farm as the center of community life, with a skating rink, hayrides, baseball games, and famous motorcycle races.

“I had to take the place over, because I had some of the best times of my life here,” Griffin said (quoted in City Paper article, 10 Nov. 2010). The Blues venue was reborn. New owner, same farm, same barn, same bar and stage in the large indoor space, same race track, and same music and traditions.

Like in the old days, musicians today come from all over the region and beyond for a gig, some from Chicago, Detroit and other big cities. This weekend well-known harmonica player and Blues educator Billy Branch plays his heart out to a mixed and boisterous crowd, white and black, all ethnic backgrounds, young, middle-aged and seniors. That’s a tradition at Hines Farm, too, a multi-ethnic, diverse, and enthusiastic crowd. It was a rarity in the 1950s, during the height of segregation. Tonight it feels right, natural, Americans united, enjoying a shared heritage.

So here I am at Hines Farm, feeling the tradition, enjoying the music. We get our barbeque dinners, the best in the area, and sit at one of the faded wood picnic tables that fill the area around an outdoor stage. Too nice to be inside. Music and spoken word take turns. Then Billy Branch takes the stage, and Hines Farm heats up. Folks clap, dance, and sing along. Branch calls his music “the Chicago blues.” There’s no grander blues tradition than that, carried North by African-Americans during the Great Migration.

You don't have to go to faraway places for great adventures. It's right here, in our own backyard, I thought. The music blares as the sun sets, a clear summer night in the Toledo countryside, and we take in the magic of the place.

Note: There’s information about Hines Farm online, several articles, and also an award-winning PBS documentary, based on the research of Dr. Matt Donahue, a Popular Culture instructor at Bowling Green State University. The documentary became a labor of love for Donahue, who started his career as a student at the University of Toledo, writing a paper on Hines Farm. One thing led to another. Donahue intereviewed local musicians and all the greats still living. John Lee Hooker, who loved singing the blues at Hines Farm, told Donahue in an interview: “I haven’t made a lot of money, but I had a lot of fun.” Donahue says he felt the same way in working with the local PBS station to produce the documentary.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Sis

Andy in Paris: Cheers! With our brother Loren (wearing his favorite t-shirt from Costa Rica) in Athens, GA, on CoeCoe's deck, a stop on their road trip to Rochester, NY (lower right). A classic beach photo (upper right): that's Andy, in the middle, with my mom and friend Linda at St. Teresa's FL, toasting with Mom's Famous Margaritas on the beach (well in the water). Just like Andy!

My sister Andy is the middle child in our family. I was first, then Andy, then our little brother Loren. Andy was our family clown. She always made us laugh. She was a lot like our dad, really, a bright light when things got a bit gloomy. Soon after Loren was born, putting her in the middle at five years of age, she went door to door in our old neighborhood in Rochester trying to sell him for five cents. There were no takers, but a few potential buyers did tell our mom. Andy may have been reprimanded, I don’t remember, but that certainly didn’t stop her from her joyful, let’s put it that way, antics. She also inherited from our dad the ability to see the fun side of things, and to tell a good joke. If life got too heavy, Andy’s light side rose to the occasion.

Of course the family clown is often a lot more serious underneath, a lot more introverted and thoughtful than surface behavior might indicate. Same with Andy, I think. She's always retained her lovable comic side, and if there was some rough sledding she hung on to it for dear life. If it slipped, she was the first to know, and to make any necessary corrections. She was a family anchor, still is, there in Tallahassee for our mom in her failing years, and for my brother in his Florida years. You could always count on Andy. Always. Highly responsible, reliable, ethical, smart and caring.

That’s why Andy is my best friend. We can rant and argue, even be outrageous, and come out laughing. She sees my bad side and loves me still. She has that damned instinct that ferrets out any attempt to cover up feelings or behaviors. She’ll zero right in on them, and help you release unease or discomfort in the process. She’s a great mom to Kaaren and Ali and a loving grandmother to Leo and Ava Rose. She is a wonderful gardener (loves digging, weeding, raking, planting, tending), a loyal friend, a great entertainer who sets the most beautiful tables. She makes her house and her now screened-in porch warm and welcoming. She is the queen of hearth and home. And she is the best sister in the world.

She’s always teased me about being older, but looks like she’s catching up to me. Happy birthday, sis!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

On writing

(yahoo image)

A blank page. Most writers find it daunting. It’s worse than tabula rasa, a blank slate, because the ideas are there, but the words are not.
I would like to consider myself a writer, but I am not sure. My confidence flags. I’m an historian and history teacher, retired; a nonprofit director, retired; and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), retired from my post in Ukraine. I’ve had diverse experiences and adventures. And I write about them.

So sometimes I call myself a writer when I’m at the computer, or writing a blog. Not a real writer, though, a narrative writer, not a fiction writer because I don't make up stories. I write about what I see, more like a reporter.

It's easier for me to describe situations, people, life happenings than to make up a story, easier to write about my experiences, what I know, my take on things, than compose a poem.

I have trouble with ”don’t tell, show.” That was the lesson from a writing group I once dared to join. I was on vacation in San Miguel de Allende. I think that’s when I feared I was not a writer afterall. What was I doing in this writer’s group? The fear gripped me, and has not let go.

I basically play with words. I don’t think this is considered being a writer, more a “scribbler,” a “damned scribbler,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne called the women who wrote romance novels that became more popular than his books in the mid-nineteenth century. Not that I could write a romance novel.

Is writing a craft, or an art? I lean toward craftsmanship, crafting words. That‘s what Stephen King calls it in his book “On Writing,” which is also an autobiography.

But writing is also an art, if you have a larger imagination than I do and more talent to put it on paper. Writing is an art form if the writer is comfortable with losing control, letting the ideas flow, less self-conscious perhaps, can take us places we've never been before. King does that.

I'm as daunted by the idea of stream of consciousness writing as I am of a blank page. The notion of “unleashing” mental images without screening, without thought, is scary, let alone unleashing an interior monologue from the dark subconscious, an unrestrained and disconnected flow of perceptions, not thoughts, of senses, not logic. And then putting these together in some coherent form.

Which is why I think of myself as a writer only sometimes, and not a great writer, just an okay narrative writer with a passion for reading and words. The blank page remains daunting, even if you’re not about to write a masterpiece, and maybe never will. It takes courage even to try.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"What's Life Without a little Drama?"

I went to the Toledo Repertoire Theatre, fondly called The Rep, in its 79th season, with my dear friend Barby on a Sunday afternoon. It was like old times. We met up with her friends Marcia, a pianist, and Paul, a former PCV in Iran in the 1960s. We had tons in common, plus a love of theatre.

We saw “The Secret Garden,” the popular musical written by Marsha Norman, with music by Lucy Simon, that premiered on Broadway in 1991, and had a long run. I love the original story by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which takes me back to my childhood. I read it and reread it when I was about 12 or 13 years old, an enchanting and endearing tale of loss and rebirth built around the powerful symbol of reviving a neglected 'secret' garden.

The Rep’s production soared. Brilliant stage set, lighting, costumes, direction, choreography. The entire stage was "framed" with old vintage photos and photo frames, antique lamps, artifacts, crafts, and household items, all piled on top of each other, layered, a bit musty, artfully placed. A frame of memorabilia and memories, the characters on stage surrounded by the past.

This production had a huge cast, and all the leads had beautiful, strong voices. “Not a bad voice among them,” Barby whispered in my ear. The orchestra was great, too, featuring woodwinds, percussion, and keyboard. The flute sounded the voice of the robin that led Mary to the key to the secret garden. The songs ranged from sweet to melancholy to powerful, the music low key and haunting, especially with the appearance of so many “ghosts” who filled the stage and prompted action or responded to it. The ghosts moved gracefully around the characters, adding depth and mystery.

The set was fantastic, but there was no garden, something I had looked forward to seeing: a beautifully designed staged garden. How wonderful that would be! But I thought about it, during and after the play. Someone made a decision not to build a garden set, to leave it to our imaginations. And it worked. For the most part. Had other productions tried designing and building a garden? I don’t know. The original program showed a bouquet of flowers, and a golden key. The story evokes the beauty, the flowering, of a neglected garden, seen or unseen, come to life, and with it the lives of the characters--Mary, her cousin Colin, her uncle Archibald, all of them.

What a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon. “What’s life without a little drama,” as the Toledo Blade, the local newspaper, reminded us in the theatre program.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Remembering my Dad

Dad and his family: a classic family portrait, c. 1954.

It’s been a long, long time since I said “Happy Father’s Day” to my dad. He died young, at age 62 (a day before his 63rd birthday), in October 1976, of lung and liver cancer. He was a #1 dad and family man. He worked hard at his business, loved music, tennis, food, his Oldsmobiles (hot convertibles!) and, most of all, loved our mom. Here’s to my Dad, and to my mom and my brother Loren, hoping they are connected somewhere, somehow, in the great beyond. Here’s to wonderful memories of growing up in Rochester, New York, and of annual family visits with my kids. My Dad dearly loved his grandchildren, gave them everything he had and more, especially values that see us through life, like honesty and loyalty, love of family and family traditions. The grandkids, all of them, my sister’s too, brought him great joy. Nothing made him happier than seeing them, having us gather, the whole family together. Miss you Dad.

Friday, June 17, 2011


No, this is not an image from the recent Ascot horse races in England. It's Elissa, looking as beautiful as anyone who attended the races.

You know how big hats are at special events in England – like Prince William and Kate’s wedding. At horse races, too, like the famous Royal Ascot Race that took place this week. The hats were outrageous, fantastic.

My daughter Elissa tells me you have to have a hat for watching auto shows and auto races, too. So we went looking for hats at Walmart. Of course they don’t have to be as fancy, or as expensive, as those English hats, or the one's at the Preakness or the Kentucky Derby and other American horse races, following, and trying to outdo, the English tradition. They are worn for protection more than fashion.

Actually, I never knew there were so many
ways to make a hat. I marvel at the creativity, craftsmanship and imagination that goes into them. Also at the way they are held in place, which is beyond me. This held the biggest fascination for me while watching the Royal wedding!

I love wearing hats, but my feeling is you have to be tall to wear hats that look great. On the other hand, my hairdresser says anyone can look great in hats. It’s all in HOW you wear them. It’s all in your attitude when you are in a hat, or rather when a hat is on top of your head. You have to keep your head up and wear a hat proudly, haughtily, jauntily, with confidence!

Makes sense. But I don’t think anyone looks more beautiful in a large-brimmed hat than my daughter Elissa. She’s ready for the beach, for the races, for her next car show!

Inner Change

Serenity Prayer in English, Spanish, and Russian. The message is simple, powerful, & universal (yahoo images).

My Peace Corps experience often put me up against myself: responding to new situations in a strange environment, surrounded by a foreign language, confronted by different cultural norms, values and traditions. I had to adjust my expectations and responses. I had to slow down, for one thing. I learned a lot about Ukraine and its wonderful people, and just as much about myself.

I never prided myself on having quiet patience and favoring slow change, but these virtues came in handy all along the way. The American “can-do” spirit and need for instant gratification came on a bit too strong for Ukrainian tastes. It is a slower pace in Ukraine, change is even slower, and trying new things is a challenge. Ukrainians are wise, strong, resilient, but they are also mistrustful, burdened with a traumatic history that affects attitudes, viewpoints and behavior, and often just plain burdened down with survival, the hassles of daily life.

It takes a while to gain trust. Enthusiastic global ideas for change, and "transferring skills," in Peace Corps parlance, don’t send sparks flying. Maybe just the opposite. Things have to evolve, slowly, one step at a time, many cups of tea, many toasts.

The Serenity prayer came in handy. It's a favorite maxim and mantra in AA and Al Anon (attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian) and I thought I had it down. Hah! It took several months of adjusting and re-adjusting, and then some, actually to put theory into practice in a new environment. "I can’t change this, but I can do that," I kept telling myself. One step at a time. One day at a time.

And that’s when things started happening, with human rights NGO Victoria, with the Starobelsk Regional Library, with the English Club, with writing and receiving grants for projects, with networking and making new connections. I pushed through the frustration and doubt, adjusted my attitude, checked my habitual responses, often reversed them, went with the ups and downs, accepted the challenges of the language, and came out okay. It's a great feeling when it works!

Serenity Prayer in Russian
"Дай Бог нам спокойствие
принять то, что мы не можем изменить,
мужество изменить то, что мы можем,
и мудрость отличить одно от другого ".

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hi, Hi, Miss American Pie: Art, Cars and New Combinations

Elissa's newest fascination, her dream car, a Challenger. Her art work and various cars: Friend Bob Floyd's '65 Plymouth Belvedere. 1950s Chevy, harewood photography, flickr (because it's the icon of Don Maclean's "Bye,Bye Miss American Pie.") An antique yellow car in the Sylvania Memorial Day parade. Elissa's friend Scott Roberts checking his restored black 1950s Ford pickup. My brother's KIA (because I miss him, and I don't know a thing about cars).

My daughter Elissa is an inspiration. Her strengths are her glory: her imagination, her compassion, her faith. She’s the first to admit her "challenges." It's hard for her to get organized, she'll say;
to let go, to throw things away. She collects things, cuts words and pictures out of magazines, which she also collects, keeps stacks of

envelopes and found objects around, in case she wants to use them them for her art someday, and someday is coming soon.

She has many interests, and has recently added a new one.... CARS. Yep, my daughter is

interested in cars. First there’s her favorite, the Challenger, I think it’s called. It makes her heart flutter, she says. Then there are old cars, antique cars, classic cars, sprinting cars, racing cars, and the mechanics of

each of them. There are car shows, festivals, fairs, parades and races. There's a whole big world of cars and car lovers out there. It's huge! And I'm not talking NASCAR. These are folks who keep cars going, bring them back to life and keep them going. There's something to be said about that.

I always say you never know where life will take you if you take life as it comes. For Elissa, that's imagination, art, graphic design and now, cars. Well, that’s a new combination, a pretty fascinating combination!

For some reason, all this makes me think of Don Maclean's classic story-song about the 1950s and 1960s, "Bye, Bye Miss American Pie, drove my

chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry..." It's an American classic, like the cars Elissa has discovered as she goes 'round the circle of her life. The song, as we all know, if we know it, is about the music changing after Buddy Holly died, about life changing, about American culture changing. I guess change is what life's all about.

I can't resist copying the elegaic song, below. What a beauty, to read the words again, almost as beautiful as one of those new Dodge Challengers, or those old restored cars. The past can be brought back to life! The music is not dead.

Don MacLean, Bye Bye Miss American Pie
A long, long time ago. I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.An' I knew if I had my chance,
That I could make those people dance.
And maybe they'd be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver,With every paper I'd deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep.
I couldn't take one more step.
I can't remember if I cried,
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside,
The day the music died.

So, bye, bye, Miss American Pie.

Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.
An' them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye.
Singin' "This'll be the day that I die.
This'll be the day that I die."

Did you write the book of love?
And do you have faith in God above,
If the Bible tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Well, I know that you're in love with him.
'Cause I saw you dancin' in the gym.
You both kicked off your shoes.
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues.
I was a lonely, teenage broncin' buck,
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck.
But I knew I was out of luck,
The day the music died.

I started singing, "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie."
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye."
Singing, "This'll be the day that I die.
This'll be the day that I die."

Now, for ten years we've been on our own.
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone.
But that's not how it used to be.
When the Jester sang for the King and Queen,
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean,
In a voice that came from you and me.
Oh, and while the King was looking down,
The Jester stol' his thorny crown.
The courtroom was adjourned,
No verdict was returned.
And while Lenin read a book on Marx,
The quartet practiced in the park.
And we sang dirges in the dark.
The day the music died.

We were singin', "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie."
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye.
Singing, "This'll be the day that I die.
This'll be the day that I die."

Helter skelter in a summer swelter,
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter.
Eight miles high and fallin' fast.
[ Find more Lyrics on ]
It landed foul on the grass,
The players tried for a forward pass,
With the Jester on the sidelines in a cast.
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume,
While Sergeants played a marching tune,
We all got up to dance,
Oh, but we never got the chance.
'Cause the players tried to take the field,
The marching band refused to yield.
Do you recall what was revealed,
The day the music died?

We started singin' "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie."
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye.
Singing, "This'll be the day that I die.
This'll be the day that I die."

Oh, and there we were all in one place.
A generation lost in space,
With no time left to start again.
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick.
'Cause fire is the devil's only friend.
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage,
My hands were clenched in fists of rage.
No angel born in hell,
Could break that Satan's spell.
And as the flames climbed high into the night,
To light the sacrificial rite,
I saw Satan laughing with delight,
The day the music died.

He was singing, "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie."
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye.
Singing, "This'll be the day that I die.
This'll be the day that I die."

I met a girl who sang the blues,
And I asked her for some happy news.
But she just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the sacred store,
Where I'd heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn't play.
And in the streets the children screamed.
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken.
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most,
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost,
They caught the last train for the Coast.
The day the music died.

And they were singing, "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie."
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye.
Singing, "This'll be the day that I die.
This'll be the day that I die."

They were singing, "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie."
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye.
Singing, "This'll be the day that I die.
This'll be the day that I die."

[Written by: Don McLean
Performed by: Don McLean [1] -1971
Appears on: American Pie-1971, Solo-1976, Dominion-1983, Favorites and
Rarities-1992, The Very Best of Don McLean-1999, Amplified-2000, Sensational
'70s (Various Artists)-2005 [2] , et al.]

[1] Covered by: Hit Crew, Catch 22, Jive Bunny & the Mastermixers, Madonna,
Mott the Hoople, Slaughter, Nina Simone, The Starlite Singers, Tori Amos,
Global Deejays, Eric Carmen, Studio 99, Valerie, The Ventures, Who's That
Girl, et al.]

[2] Transcribed from the track on this album.]
Lyrics: Bye bye Miss American pie, Don MacLean

Note: There's a line by line analysis of the song at a Jerry's Jukebox: Great reference, if you want to know what the words, images, allusions, metaphors, and symbolism are all about.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Spontaneous Fun: Life Going 'Round

Josh and Alli came over on Saturday afternoon, an unexpected surprise. After a little lunch, we walked over to the Art Festival and toured the grounds of the "Sylvania Historical Village," just a few doors down from where I live. Afterwards we joined a jammin' session in progress on our front porch (there they are, right, with the hat of George the flutist barely visible).

This is the kind of spontaneous get-together that's made possible by my being here. It was different when I lived in DC, Florida, Ukraine, or
when I was working and traveling someplace. I made lots of trips to Toledo and flew the kids here and there, even to Mexico and London, made every effort to stay in touch. They loved

visiting me in DC and in Florida. Alli is in love with St. Pete. These were all great visits, with fantastic memories, the more so as the kids got older.

And now, well, this is great too, being close. It's great timing because the kids are at such great ages for growing, exploring and sharing together. We are coming around the circle of life.

Life gives us time for most everything, I'm learning, if we are healthy, hearty and lucky enough, and it gives us many second chances. Time is not only linear, it is circular, like the sacred and ancient Celtic, Native American, and Egyptian symbols. I feel like I have come full circle, or almost full circle, in my life's journey. And I'm still going 'round!

I see things with different eyes when I am going 'round with my grandchildren. I had been to the Art Festival and village grounds a few hours earlier, admiring the large paintings of poppies, the glass garden art, handmade soaps, repainted antique furniture, jewelry, books by a local author.

But it was different being with the kids. Alli and Josh preferred the photo and craft arts, and enjoyed the historic sites even more. Interesting, for an historian like their grandmother! They stopped in the Old School House, sat in the old desks, pretended they were students, noticed the books (the old McGuffy readers), the photo of George Washington, the flag with 23 stars. They climbed into the two historic trains housed in a grand "train barn" to preserve them. The old train depot and the trains date back to 1858 and they were in service until 1956. We went into the old barn and blacksmith shop, filled with old instruments and tools, which they found fascinating. Same with the old log cabin, discovered in the nearby Michigan countryside, in total disrepair, brought to the Village and restored to its original look and purpose.

The City of Sylvania supports Sylvania Historical Village along with the House Museum.
The grounds are lovely and expansive. It’s a good sign of a vital community with a responsive local government, concerned about preserving the past for today and future generations. The kids got the message!

On the way back, we ambled onto our front porch and joined neighbors for some old-fashion jamming: George on the flute, Jim and Bob on guitars and with a harmonica, Jim singing, and Elliot on drums. They gave guitars to Alli and Josh, showed them two or three basic chords, and told them to strum. And strum they did! It was great. Well, it wasn’t a great concert, but it was a lot of fun. Spontaneous front porch fun on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Life going 'round.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Treasures and Pleasures Close to Home

I like walking around my new neighborhood, gaining familiarity, discovering new things. So many treasures and pleasures. Among them are the beautiful flowers that bloom in profusion: iris, poppies, roses, peonies, in wonderful variety and colors, some delicate as veils, others sturdy as metal. Every house, every building and yard, has something blooming, perennials flourishing and annuals tastefully filling in around them. Just like in Starobelsk, and Luba's and Natalia's gardens.

Sylvania is not only green, it’s also red, thanks to the foresight of early civic leaders who planted lots of red maples. Beautiful trees. Main Street and the neighborhoods around it are lined with them, graceful deep red leaves swaying in the breezes against blue skies.

Sylvania is noted as well for its many small businesses that beckon us to “shop locally.” Antique stores and home furnishing shops predominate, chock full of lovely things and sweet-smelling candles and incense. Other favorites are the Angel Store and Harmony in Life, where you can buy treasures for the soul, an angel for your walls, take a yoga class, get a massage, inhale and exhale, relax and enjoy.

There’s a variety of nice restaurants, too: the Dragonfly Tea Room, a pretty Victorian haven for lunch, brunch , or tea; Chandler’s, J&G’s and Jenna’s, inside or outside, great for lunch and informal meals. Treo’s with it’s white tablecloths, candles and flowers, for more fancy dinners. Outdoor tables and chairs along the street and in front of shops welcome guests and provide resting places and public spaces for chatting with neighbors and shoppers.

The town’s recent ”paint a planter” competition has resulted in brightly painted large flower pots along Main Street, complementing the painted benches, adding to the ambience. It’s like a touch of Mexico, full of color and charm.

Recently I discovered some new attractions: The Limelight, for gifts; First Impressions for homemade art cards, invitations and notes for every occasion; and the grounds of the Historical Museum and village, behind the historic house. A gazebo graces a lovely garden, a favorite site for birds and rabbits as well as human visitors.

Today the Historical village hosted the annual Art Festival, with over 30 tables and booths featuring arts and crafts by local artists. I stopped by, bought a piece of outdoor art for our little garden, took a tour of the historic house (the former home of Dr. Cooke and his family), and met several board members. I plan to go back for programs and learn more about Sylvania history. (I also noticed that the House's papers are contained in several files, and it would probably be good to digitize the collection, to preserve it for posterity, but I didn't say much).

Life’s s simple pleasures here, as in Starobelsk, my village in Ukraine, feed the spirit, restore the soul. It doesn’t matter where you are, if you are fully present where your feet are planted. Life is good!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


My neighbor Judi’s sister is dying; she's under hospice care now. She has stopped eating, mostly sleeps, awakens every now and then with a smile to see her sisters, including those from Massachusetts, around her. She is at death’s door.

I brought Judi a pasta salad today so she can eat on the go; she gave me a Hospice book, “Gone from My Sight,” about the dying experience, which I had said I was interested in. I put down my Digest of Ohio Motor Vehicle Laws to browse through it.

The booklet, by Barbara Karnes, RN, opens: “Death comes in its own time, in its own way. Death is as unique as the individual who is experiencing it.” She then gives the signs of death, from withdrawal to having no interest in food, to sleeping most of the time; “going inward” she calls it. “Words lose their importance,“ she says, and “a different kind of energy is needed, a spiritual energy rather than physical energy.”

This all makes sense. It happened with my dad, with my mom, although I was ignorant of death and signs of it. I don’t know how it was for my brother (that grieves me), or if he recognized the signs of death, or the tremendous stress on his body from being overweight and out of shape. I have some books about death and dying next to my bed, but haven't read them yet. Not when I’m in the middle of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and also John Grisham’s fun novel Playing for Pizza.

Maybe I need to get my priorities straight! Actually, I do find myself collecting some nice things that can be said at one’s funeral, anyone's funeral. Here’s one, for example, that my sister Andy and her daughter Ali chose for my brother’s memorial gathering.

Afterglow (photo above right)
I’d like the memory of me
To be a happy one. I’d like
To leave an afterglow of smiles
When day is done. I’d like
To leave an echo. . .
Whispering softly down
the ways of laughing times
and bright and sunny days.
I’d like the tears of those
Who grieve to dry before
The sun of happy memories
that I leave behind
When day is done.

Very nice, I think. I don’t know the author, but the thoughts are upbeat, and the concept of "Afterglow" is wonderful. I think Loren liked this.

There are also several poems that begin: “I’m Free.” And there’s “A Scot’s Farewell,” which can be a comforting farewell for a person of any ethnic background who comes "to the end of the road."

A Scot’s Farewell
When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me
I want no tears in a gloom-filled room
Why cry for a soul set free?
Miss me a little but not for long
And not with your head bowed low
Remember the love that we once shared.
Miss me…but let me go.

For this is a journey we all must take
And each must go alone.
It’s all a part of the master plan
A step on the road to home.

When you are lonely and sick of heart
Go to the friend we know
And bury your sorrows in doing good deeds.
Miss me…but let me go.

No author here either, but I like this one. Straightforward, honest, hopeful. Let me go. Do good deeds. Life goes on.

Judi’s sister’s body, her physical presence, is at the end of the road, her soul on its way to a new place, wherever that may be. It’s hardest on the loved ones, but I find comfort in these words of wisdom, and in the idea of a soul set free.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ukrainian-Toledo Connections

Olga traveling (above); Luba with friends and flowers; Vera and Vova at a protest (left).

The Toledo-Ukraine connection continues. I love emailing my friends in Starobelsk, and hearing from them in return. We exchange news and photos. Now they are enjoying photos of my great-grandson Philip’s 4th birthday party. Facebook is also a good way to stay connected.

I don’t know what life will bring, if I will ever return to Starobelsk, whether friends from there will ever be able to visit me in the States. But I will always remember, and so will they.

The bonds are strong across time and place, language and culture. I’d Skype but my Russian is getting worse and worse the longer I don’t hear the language, or communicate. It’s frustrating; better to email. When I can get a translator to Skype with me, I’ll do it for sure.

Here, above, are a few photos of friend Olga who was with Vera, director of Victoria NGO, in Dnepropetrovsk, attending a training seminar and enjoying the city on the Dnieper river, its sights and sounds, its nature and culture. It was once a center of the Soviet Union's defense and space industries; it's now becoming a tourism destination, promoting its beautiful historic sites and churches, plus a great public transportation system.

The collage also shows Olga enjoying a concert with a traditional Ukrainian band, and it’s just like her to befriend them. She is a one-woman cross-cultural band herself! She led our great adventure to the Carpathian mountains, to Lviv and her friends Stefan and Bogdan, and later to Prague and the exquisite little towns around it.

Vera Flyat continues her human rights work and her commitment to social change from the bottom up (left, Vera in center, and friend Vovo Shecherchenko, lower left corner), at an anti-corruption protest. She is a dynamo. So is Vovo, head of the East Ukraine Center for Civil Initatives. They are Ukraine's future leaders. Они Украины будущие лидеры.

Back in Starobelsk (photos to right), Luba and Irina, and friends Tonya and Luda, get together often, enjoying meals and toasts using the Florida shot glasses I gave them. Those turned out to be the best souvenirs I brought with me to Ukraine, and I had to get refills a few times! Here's to Florida, to the Ukraine, to us!

Life is often hard for Luba and her friends, with businesses suffering, the economy broken, Sergei’s situation tragic, and Luba with a broken wrist on top of a broken heart. But these are resourceful women, incredibly hard workers, and they know how to have fun even in the worst of times. We share a love of flowers, so I am always happy to see roses from Luba’s garden. She’s having a rough time now, but I pray her cast will come off soon and that she will be working in her garden again, her refuge and solace.

Once a PCV always a PCV. The friendships we make are special and enduring. The ties that bind are strong. We leave a small legacy behind, but we receive so much more than we can ever give. PCVs are warriors for peace. We don't carry guns, but we advance the cause through cross-cultural understanding, grassroots work, and many personal friendships. These connections, the very essence of a PCV's work, lay the groundwork for peaceful relations and social change, one small step at a time.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Wonder-filled Whirlwind Weekend

Old West End Festival and our old homestead at 2448 Robinwood (yellow & green with distinctive porch railing, and interior with fabulous woodwork). Below the collage: Josh and Kyle's tent; Philip's 4th at Wildwood park; matriarch Roz and our family.

This was a great post-PCV weekend. The adventures are piling up faster than in Ukraine!

First the kids and I went to the Old West End (OWE) Festival and visited our family home at 2448 Robinwood, where Elissa and Michelle grew up. The house looks better than ever, inside and out, and the flowers and gardens I planted over 25 years ago are still flourishing. The people who live there now (there have been several different owners and occupants over the years) love it as much as we did, and they were glad to let us take a tour. The OWE festival began in the late 1960s when the neighborhood of fabulous Victorian homes was rebounding from hard times. The festival showcases the OWE’s historic architecture and pride of place. A walk down memory lane for me, and lots of lawn sales for the kids.

That night Josh and Kyle spent the night at my place. They built a great fort in the living room, with every sheet, blanket and chair we could gather together. They stayed up late, but what the heck! It was a great adventure.

On Sunday we all went to Wildwood Park, one of Toledo’s great Metroparks, for Philip’s 4th birthday party. It was a beautiful sunny day, not quite as hot as on Saturday. Friends from Philip’s pre-school and church and lots of family members on all sides gathered to enjoy pizza, cake, sing happy birthday and give him lots of presents. Boy did he have fun with that, helped by his cousin Aiden, whose birthday is coming up next month. Good thing, because those presents were fantastic! Mama Julia, my firstborn grandchild, did a great job of organizing the party, and keeping track of who gave what to Philip. What a party planner, to her mom’s (my daughter’s) delight, because an organizer Elissa is not! Creative and talented and wonderful, but not an organizer, as she freely admits. The family joke is that Julia inherited that gene from her Nana, and it skips generations.

And speaking of generations, with Roz Soldinger present, the 94-year-old family matriarch, we were five generations gathered to celebrate the birthday of the youngest, newest generation. A diverse, extended family united by the joy of Philip's 4th birthday. That's amazing!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

St. Patrick's Historic Catholic Church, Toledo, Ohio

I could be in Krakow, Poland, admiring the magnificent Saint Mary’s Cathedral, where Pope John Paul preached, or in Prague, Lviv, Budapest or Rome, Italy. But I am in old downtown Toledo, Ohio, marveling at St. Patrick’s Historic Catholic Church, one of the oldest in the city. I’ve passed it many times, taking my daughter to and from work. Today I stopped in to take a closer look.

It’s a Gothic cathedral, in the European tradition, smaller but as grand as any I've seen around the world. It has a magnificent 240 foot spire, a complex cylander-shaped beamed ceiling supported by marble columns, a stunning nave, detailed carvings and an elegant entryway, and at least 10 stained glass windows. The church goes back to the early 1860s and the founding of the city. Fire destroyed the original site in the early 1860s; construction on the present church began in 1892.

Today St. Patrick’s is surrounded by public housing, warehouses, industrial sites and trashy lots. It’s seen fire and rain, dwindling numbers of parishioners, urban blight and neighborhood deterioration. It has survived every tragedy to emerge stronger than ever.

After a 1980 fire, the grand copper-domed steeple was rebuilt, soaring into the heavens, summoning the guardian angels who have protected it through the ages. The church has a new terrazzo tile floor inlaid here and there with Irish shamrocks, testimony to its Irish Catholic roots in mid-nineteenth century Toledo. It has a new organ and, as important, strong organizational support, a preservation committee, well-attended weekly services and a myriad of activities. A firefighters’ memorial adds an important element to the church's interior, and reflects St. Patrick's ongoing commitment to the city's workers.

Irish immigrants “built the city from the bottom up,” one history says. They came to the Midwest hoping to farm, but ended up working as laborers. The Irish built the Miami and Erie Canals, then the railroads. They may have been “more interested in saloons than in churches,” as a church historian puts it, but the Irish newcomers, here as elsewhere, built their community around the church. It was their centerpiece, their refuge and salvation. Irish women, who worked as maids or in domestic services, made sure of it.

St. Patrick’s glistens in the summer sun against a blue sky and floating clouds. It looks peaceful and elegant, an oasis in an ever-changing urban landscape. Through good times and bad, St. Patrick’s has remained a steadfast sentinel to persistence and to Toledo’s Irish heritage and early history.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Casa de Mama and the gathering table.

I just unpacked the last box। Whew! The movers came a week ago। It was the day after our memorable road trip through West Virginia, “almost heaven," where Loren’s car died on the one-year anniversary of his death. It’s been a kind of non-stop emotional roller-coaster ever since. Well, actually it began when I had to leave Ukraine in early March. I’ve been going like the energizer bunny.

This past week I've discovered what I left behind two years ago. How easy to forget it all. The furniture, art, possessions, the books, tons of books, an historian’s galaxy. I piled the last 8 boxes (there were over 50) in my closet today because I ran out of book shelves, having left a couple in St. Petersburg. I put some of the books in a box to give to charity.

I've found a place for all my furniture, even things I thought I didn’t want or could live without, like my mother’s French provincial curio cabinet, several old chairs, two bureaus, lots of books and artwork।

This apartment has two large rooms, plus a kitchen, bathroom, nice hallway, and little back porch atop a rickety flight of steep stairs that I use to get in and out. There’s another set of stairs I can use on the side of the house. I have stuff in that little porch. Elissa calls it a “mud room,” but it’s a pretty fancy mud room with that curio cabinet in it! I added a few paintings, too, including a classic poster for the Puccini opera “Madama Butterfly.” My mom sang the arias from that opera, which I loved, sweet and romantic. I called my mom Madama Butterfly. I still think of her that way. They are all together in that little porch space.

How many memories flew out of the dozens of boxes I unpacked, not to mention hundreds of mom’s photo albums and mine from the time my kids were born. Plastic storage boxes filled with momentoes and memories.

I’ve used every bit of space. I’m good at getting lots of stuff into small spaces, a skill that developed when I had an apartment in the Cairo Condo in Washington, DC. Minimalist my style is NOT. I have too much stuff. Eclectic it is, and colorful, bright, bold colors. The walls show it as well, filled with paintings and art, mostly from Mexico, plus four “abstract” works by Mike Adams, my daughter Michelle’s partner.

The most important piece of furniture I have is the large glass dining table in the living room, donated by my daughter Elissa. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. It’s become the family table, the gathering place. It’s in front of a large bay window overlooking the roof tops and trees of Main Street Sylvania. Four of my grandkids can sit on the window seat so we can all squeeze around the table. It’s in constant use. What a joy!

The next most important thing is a little treasure chest of toys that I began years ago, when my first grandkids Julia and Tony were born. I filled it with a variety of dolls, toy cars, games, stuffed animals, puzzles, cards, magnets, coloring books and crayons, and special items I knew they’d like, like souvenirs from my travels. Whenever things disappeared, I added new stuff. All my grandkids went straight for that treasure box, “hidden” under my bed, whenever they came to visit me, wherever I was. Now my great-grandson Philip has discovered the box that I created for my first-born grandchild Julia, his mom! Four generations enjoying a box of little surprises.
When I was a PCV in Ukraine I lived in one room with a bed, desk, and chair. It was all I needed. I think I could do with very few possessions, although what I have adds color to my life, and to that of my kids, who love being surrounded by Casa de Mama. The dining room table and the treasure box would be things I would keep. The rest could go, WILL go, one day. For now, my furnished apartment is a haven, a gathering place, a family home. I’m anchored.

Mike Adams' Art

My first photos (below) did not do justice to the art, especially their layered three-dimensional depth. So I tried again, at an angle and without flash. It's a little better. This is a small sample of a diverse body of work.

Mike Adam's art decorates my new apartment. Some of it. His crowded studio room overflows with his work, art upon art, “non-objective abstract three-dimensional art,” he calls it. I say it’s beautiful but he corrects me: “beautiful” it isn’t. Yes, I see what he means. Beautifully executed, beautiful colors, beautiful ideas, but more complicated than merely “beautiful.”

Mike's multi-varied art is detailed, emotional, layered, inspired. It's rhythmic, too, like music on canvas, or like a pumping heart. Sometimes it's tortured, like the complicated wiring of a brain on overload; sometimes peaceful, like a respite for the afflicted in a serene garden; sometimes both in the same piece of work, always the complex interior world of this talented artist.

Mike Adams is my daughter Michelle’s partner. They’re having a baby boy, Chase, in September. In preparation, Mike has painted a large, beautiful, oops, I mean stunning and dramatic, mural for his first child. It’s like a large colorful map for a child’s journey, full of animals and symbols, paths and byways, imagination and hope. It pays homage to Michelle’s other three children, too, Alli, Josh, and Kyle, part of a growing Adams and Cary clan in Sylvania, Ohio.

Mike also experiments with clay, watercolor, figurative painting. He is full of ideas. Sometimes his body doesn’t cooperate, his MS takes a hold, but he paints through the pain and the agony. He puts it on canvas for us to witness. When I view Mike's paintings I see, for the first time, what MS is like, what it is like for him, what it was like for my cousins Skip and Maria.

As complicated as Mike's work is, a viewer is drawn in, and this even though the art sometimes pushes us away. “Beautiful it isn't.” Multi-layered, bold, sensitive, masterful and meaningful it is.

Mike's art opens a whole new world. I hope he continues to paint and exhibit (and organize and put up a website) after Chase is born, although he is looking forward to being a full-time dad. I don’t see how he could stop his art, though. It’s in his blood, his veins, his arteries, his wiring, his heart. "It is who I am," he says simply.

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