Thursday, July 28, 2011

Back to Mary Oliver's Poetry

Geese in flight, Mark Ward in Wayne, flickr photo.

Whenever I think of life and death, which happens, I turn to Mary Oliver, a favorite poet. I thank my cousin Kathy Curro for this; she sent me gifts of Oliver's poetry when I was a PCV in Ukraine. I cherish these books. I keep them next to my bed, to browse through while I’m awaiting sleep, sometimes long in coming. Maybe it's being 71 and awaiting the birth of a new grandson, Michelle's fourth child, any moment now.

When my mind won’t shut down, I read a Mary Oliver poem, close my eyes, and focus on the images she so joyfully creates with words. She literally paints pictures with words. Art to contemplate, comfort, invigorate. Last night I dreamt I was lying in a pasture of wildflowers at Wildwood Metropark in Toledo, covered with wild grasses and daisies. Getting ready to push up the daisies? Or just recalling Oliver’s images in my sleep?

Messenger By Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

White Flowers By Mary Oliver
Last night in the fields
I lay down in the darkness
to think about death,
but instead I fell asleep,
as if in a vast and sloping room
filled with those white flowers
that open all summer,
sticky and untidy,
in the warm fields.
When I woke
the morning light was just slipping
in front of the stars,
and I was covered
with blossoms.
I don’t know
how it happened—
I don’t know
if my body went diving down
under the sugary vines
in some sleep-sharpened affinity
with the depths, or whether
that green energy
rose like a wave
and curled over me, claiming me
in its husky arms.
I pushed them away, but I didn’t rise.
Never in my life had I felt so plush,
or so slippery,
or so resplendently empty.
Never in my life
had I felt myself so near
that porous line
where my own body was done with
and the roots and the stems and the flowers

Wild Geese (an all-time favorite poem)
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Seniors in Trouble

"Welcome to ForeclosureLand. Florida is among the worst, and especially around the Tampa Bay area. This on top of the Republicans uncompromising insistence on cuts to Social Security, medicare and aid for the disabled and unemployed. Seniors are in trouble.

50 million seniors have a huge stake in the debt ceiling debates, if they can be called that. Once again, cuts in Social Security and Medicare are on the agenda. I know he’s under tremendous pressure, but President Obama is forced to consider them a valid compromise issue. Pushed to the wall. What a sad state of affairs.

Seniors, those of us who live on the Social Security benefits we worked for all of our lives, not wealthy seniors but normal, hardworking, middle-class Americans, are angry and concerned. We’ve had no increases in Social Security in two years and the cost of everything continues to go up, up, up. My nice little community just passed a school levy and raised water rates, so apartment owners have passed on the increases to renters. My rent increased by $10. It’s not a lot, but I’ve only lived here a few months.

To make matters worse, millions of seniors like me own homes whose values have greatly depreciated in the last 5 years. I bought my condo in St. Petersburg, Florida in 2005 for $172,000, put down $35,000, and it’s now worth about $80,000. I still owe $129,000 on my mortgage. My condo, a pretty one-bedroom, is in a great location, in thriving downtown St. Pete, near the Bay, a really beautiful part of Florida. I don’t know what to do.

Should I foreclose, like most other owners in my condo unit? These foreclosures, by the way, have made the market and costs that much worse for the few of us remaining. In short, my Florida home is no longer an asset; it’s an albatross. From a financial point of view, it’s a loss, and I should dump it.

But I’m one of those Americans who hate to consider foreclosure. I hang on, faithfully putting mortgage payments down a black hole. I’m renting the condo since I moved up North to Ohio, but the monthly rent is far below my monthly mortgage payment and Condo maintenance fee, another outcome of the housing crash.

Why can’t seniors in this position get some assistance from banks and the government? Right now, there is no incentive to continue this way, putting money down the drain. There is no financial incentive whatsoever NOT to foreclose.

What’s a senior to do? Debt ceiling and debt reduction talks rise and fall like high-risk stocks. The cuts Obama has agreed to are not enough for the Republicans in Congress. The president is gloomy, and so am I. It’s times like these that make me feel like a Ukrainian, pessimistic and doubtful that the future will get any better. I don't think I'll feel better when a debt deal comes through either.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Women and Poverty

“As more cash and assets get into the hands of women, more of these earnings get into the mouths, medicine, and school lbooks of their children, while at the same time increasing women’s bargaining position and power in the family and community; and their ability to act against violence in the home and in the world. There is no development strategy more beneficial to society as a whole - women and men alike - than the one which involves women as central players.”
- Kofi Annan, Former Secretary -General of the United Nations

When we think of this issue we think of women in places like India, Africa and Latin America. And it is a sad fact that the majority of the poor in these place, 70 %, are indeed women. As Kofi Annan understood, and eloquently stated, there’s no better economic development strategy than helping women out of poverty.

But it's also true that women are a majority among the poor in the United States. One in 6 Americans live below the government-set poverty rate, and most are women: young women with children, and elderly women living alone. Why can't American policy-makers come up with economic strategies to empower these women, and thus benefit society as a whole?

In fact, "if it wasn’t for Social Security, 50% of women over age 65 would be living in poverty." And even with Social Security, 12% of women over 65 struggle in poverty (National Academy on An Aging Society, “Public Policy and Aging,” and Tair Trussel, “Women in Poverty and Not much Social Security to their Rescue,” Mature Living, July 2011, Toledo, Ohio).

This is why advocates for the elderly in our nation are concerned about cuts to Social Security, at a time when the cost of everything, medical care included, continues to rise, while meager Social Security checks decline. Whatever changes are made in Social Security will affect women the most. Poverty increases with age. Surely Obama can’t cave in on this issue. For many elderly women, already living on the margin, it’s a matter of live and death.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Heat Wave, and some afterthoughts

A heat wave is scorching America, and also Ukraine, and most of Europe and other parts of the world. It’s summer, and it’s hot, hot, hot. We're all melting, like the wicked witch of the East at the end of "The Wizard of Oz." Maybe it’s the effects of global warming. The humidity makes it worse. Some say it’s hotter than usual, and getting hotter all the time (yahoo image above). But I’m beginning to think it’s just normal summer weather.

Heat Wave. We had one at this time last year in Ukraine. We wilted, like the gardens all around us. It was so hot the sunflowers turned brown. Some 20 hearty souls attended a "Know Your Rights” meeting in the nearby village of Chmyrovka, fanning themselves with the new informational booklet NGO Victoria had just printed. Vera Flyat, Victoria's director, said the weather kept many folks away, but the new booklet came in handy!

I faithfully held the English Club, but it too suffered diminished attendance. There's no air conditioning at the Library, or anywhere else in Starobelsk. It's what Florida must have been like before the advent of air conditioning in the 1950s.

I also remember driving to and from Lugansk to buy books for the Library, filled with gratitude for the Peace Corps Partnership Grant that made it possible. This gratitude did not cool us off, however. It was over 100 degrees F, about 43 celcius. The old car was blowing hot air on us at the same time, literally almost scorching us to death. I had to keep my feet up on the seat to prevent burning. The driver looked straight ahead without a word and without turning his head right or left. We sat silent all the way. An almost two-hour trip. We stopped once when the car overheated (it actually felt cooler outside the car, a welcome relief), and once for water. I don’t know how we survived, but I was told later that putting on the heater kept the engine cooler. Couldn’t say the same for the human passengers, whose stoicism was remarkable.

Heat wave. The title of a few books, a musical group, several songs, poems, lots of artwork. I googled "heat wave" and learned how vast the subject is, like any other subject, how multi-layered, how one thing leads to another, how a subject radiates out in circles like a pebble tossed into the water. I learned more than I needed to know probably, but it’s endlessly fascinating.

Heat wave. Some of us actually don’t mind it. At least we can tolerate the heat. Some, like my daughter Elissa and sister Andy, have never acclimated to heat. They can barely function when it’s as hot as it is now. Too hot to do anything. Lucky for many of us we have air conditioning. We can stay put and drink lots of water, especially important for the elderly and the sick. This isn’t so in Ukraine, and in many places on earth, where the only relief comes from age-old remedies like cold towels on foreheads, a splash in a river, and maybe, every once in a while, fans. The death rate from heat is also higher.

It seems to me that "heat waves" are becoming a normal weather condition everywhere in the world. We better get used to it. Soon it will be summer year-round, even in Alaska, even in Canton, New York, upstate, where my cousins Kathy and Leo Curro live!

Heat Wave
by Ellen Grace Olinger
heat wave
the beach almost as quiet
as winter

Heat Wave, from
Try to focus on how free your toes feel
in your brand new flip-flops
or how cold they don’t feel,
like they did last March
or anything else
but the creeping, creeping heat
that floats upward from the ground
only to pool in your head with no way out,
slow-cooking your brain
and what’s left of the information inside it.

Afterthoughts: This blog went flying out of my hands before I was done editing it, some inadvertent click of the wrist. So here it is edited, and with a noteworthy comment from cousins Leo and Kathy in Canton, NY, which is up North and not suffering as much as New York City, say, and the rest of us:

"However, we do think that global temps are rising due to human activities. It isn't a case of unprecedented heat but rather the frequencies and durations of hot spells. And how widely spread. You can't add endless amounts of CO2 to the Earth's atmosphere and not change the delicate balance of planetary heating and cooling. We recall talking about this with Loren who underscored our suspicions that carbon from vehicles and manufacturing is speeding the rise in temperatures. Loren knew."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sylvania Summer Days

There’s always something going on in the lovely town of Sylvania, which I now call home. Dinners and informal gatherings on our front porch with my apartment mates Judi and Robin (to the right in front of our house) are a favorite. The “Ladies of Main Street” holding court!

It’s wonderful to watch breathtaking sunsets out my kitchen window or from my back porch, and full moons rising in the Eastern sky out my bedroom window.

Musicians regularly perform on the front porch of the Dragonfly Tea Cottage, two houses down, always a treat. Flutist George, a wonderful women’s group (above), Jim Fahey and his Friends, several guitarists among them, all make the neighborhood sing.

We have art shows and car shows, and public events that bring people out into the street. The photo collage above shows Elissa’s friend Scott and their friend Bob with his beautiful (and very loud) racing car, “The Hustler,” plus an antique white convertible, impeccably groomed, and one of me with my favorite, a ’46 cadillac.

Last week’s car show featured more than 50 antique and old cars that have been lovingly restored and kept going. There’s something magical about keeping those old machines going, and in such good shape and glorious condition. The efforts and the results speak to a Senior’s soul! The car shows also bring lots of people to the neighborhood, which is good for business, especially the shops and restaurants along Main Street.

A few nights ago I went to my first program at the Sylvania Historical Society, a women's history program featuring local storyteller Sheila Painter portraying Lizzie Custer, the wife of George Custer of the Last Stand; Toledo-born suffragist and women's right activist Paulina Steinem, also the grandmother of Gloria Steinem; Mrs. Harroun, Sylvania -born anti slavery activist who provided shelter to runaway slaves at her family farm nearby (now the site of Flower Hospital); and Annie Oakley, among others. About 30 Sylvanians crowded into the front hall to enjoy the program on a torrid summer night.

Then there are visits from and to the kids and grandkids (photo of my entire family at the top), the prospect of daughter Elissa bringing her grandson Philip to play with my treasure box, and of Michelle’s giving birth to her fourth child, son Chase, in about a month, and moving into a new house, right around the corner. It’s her very first house, and it’s exciting. Now we’re all in Sylvania, within walking distance of each other, and what a blessing it is!

So life strolls on in Sylvania. Lots of things to do, lots of family time, lots to look forward to. “Summer time, and the living is easy!”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vasyl and Cross-Cultural Relations

More Scenes of Kosiv Summer Camp; Vasyl far left in group photo.

Vasyl emailed me to say he liked my blog on the summer survival camp in Kosiv. What he likes the best is that I’m a Ukraine booster!

“You do a great job of educating people about Ukraine,” he wrote. “I was moved by your blog and what you say about PC Ukraine and people from Starobilsk. When I talk to them they all recall you and hope that one day they will see you again. You became part and parcel of their lives. Now for them American means Fran, first of all.”

Wow. That’s the best compliment I could get about my PCV experience: “America means Fran!” I’ve always said that the PC goal of getting to know the people of the countries we serve, and their getting to know Americans, is probably the most important thing we do. Cross cultural relations. It’s our lasting legacy.

For many Ukrainians in far eastern Lugansk oblast, I was the first American they met and got to know. They were suspicious at first, cautious, some outspokenly so, but once trust was gained, after many cups of tea and many hearty toasts, they opened up like sunflowers against the blue Ukrainian sky. The nation’s flag unfurled! I became part of their families, part of their community, part of their hopes and dreams for their country. That’s why it was hard to leave, hard to say goodbye (and I only had about 2 days to do it).

I also learned a little bit more about Vasyl. He graduated from Ivano-Frankivsk Pedagogical Institute in 1982 and taught English for 10 years in the small village of Tudiv in the Carpathians in the Kosiv district. In 1992 he moved to Kyiv and since then has worked in a number of American organizations. His English language skills came in handy. He’s been at PC Ukraine since 2007 as Regional Manager for Kharkiv and Luhanska oblasts. Even though Vasyl is from the West, he says “I like my region and my volunteers and I am happy to assist people who join PC and come to help the people of Ukraine.”

Most of all I admire Vasyl’s patriotism and optimism for his country. When it is so easy to be pessimistic, when life is difficult and the economic chaos and corruption seem so entrenched, when the wounds of history are so deep and the struggle to survive so difficult, Vasyl quietly, in his own way, keeps fighting for the Ukraine he knows and loves. The whole staff does. PC Ukraine is definitely a great fit for Vasyl.

One more thought: Vasyl thanks me for all I did and continue to do for the people of Ukraine. But really, they deserve all the thanks. I've said it before and I mean it: they gave me more than I could ever give them. They opened up their hearts to a lone Amerikanka who could barely speak their language. Vasyl facilitated this complex and thoroughly rewarding process. It’s a new part of me that I will always treasure. I like to think I brought a piece of Ukraine back to America with me, with help from Vasyl, the Peace Corps Staff, and my fellow PCVs.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Vasyl and Kosiv, Ukraine

Kosiv and Carpathian Mountains, at a
summer survival camp in far western Ukraine. Photos by my RM (regional manager) Vasyl.
Click on link for more photos.

Vasyl Stefurak, my Regional Manager at Peace Corps-Ukraine headquarters in Kyiv, recently sent his former charges, now mostly RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers), a photo album of a “Summer Survival Camp” in his hometown of Kosiv (that's Vasyl, jeans & tan jacket, in middle of the group). The camp was founded by PCVs about 10 years ago, Vasyl said, and now it is a much-anticipated annual event for PCVs and young people from all over Ukraine. Cross-cultural relations at their finest!

I'm glad he sent the album. Such magnificent photos of the Carpathian mountains (like our Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Mountains, or Australia's Blue Mountains), the hearty souls at the camp, fields of wildflowers, wonderful hiking trails, streams and waterfalls, re-enactments of traditional Ukrainian dress and music, intimate views of camp life. Wonderful memories of the Carpathians!

I didn't know Kosiv was Vasyl’s hometown. I knew he was talented, bi-lingual, studied and spent time in the US. I think he's a former English Lit professor. I’m not sure. We never got to know Vasyl as well as he got to know us.

PCVs get immersed in the places where they are. For me that was Starbobelsk, Ukraine, in far-eastern Lugansk oblast, near the Russian border.

So most of us didn’t think about PC-UA headquarters in faraway Kyiv. Oh sure, we went there every few months for one thing or another, like trainings or medical appointments. For me that involved a 21-hour train ride from the city of Lugansk, which was about 2 hours away from Starobelsk by bus or marshruka, sometimes less if you had a tail wind from Russia and
could ride roughshod over daunting potholes.

Going to Kyiv, in other words, was a hassle, although no matter where we were posted in Ukraine, we learned to accept it, even to like it. For me, it was an overnight train ride. I usually met interesting Ukrainians who were happy to try to communicate with an Amerikanka. I got to like the big city, too; even learned to read the signs and take the subway from one end to another. The worst trip was when I broke my upper arm near the shoulder and had to go to Kyiv with only a few aspirins between me, the tracks and the pain.

But the PC staff was super: the medical staff (PCMO), the folks who helped with grants and finances, the administrative staff, the language and cultural instructors (fantastic), the site managers, the Regional Managers. All dedicated, bi-linqual, amazingly tuned in to PC goals.

That was so of my regional manager Vasyl. He got to know all about me, but I knew only a little about him. Certainly Vasyl had no easy job herding PCVs across Lugansk and Khargiv oblasts. And sometimes we crumbled, mumbled and rumbled. But mostly we were a stalwart bunch, and Vasyl let us know we could handle whatever came our way. Even though he was from the West, I now know, he helped us acclimate to the East. Different languages, different traditions, different perspectives, one nation struggling to survive and achieve social harmony, economic justice and self-determination.

Vasyl was tough, and so were we. He loved Ukraine, and so did we. That’s another reason I was happy to get a photo album of Vasyl’s hometown of Kosiv. I’d been to Slavsky and the towns around and near it, and to some trans-Carpathian towns, as well as the wonderful city of Lviv, full of history, culture, magnificent architecture, churches and monuments. I went with dear friends Olga, Tonya and Julia. I will never forget that trip. Я никогда не забуду.

But I didn’t know this was Vasyl’s stomping grounds, and I didn’t get to Kosiv. I didn't know he was such a magnificent photographer either, which he tells me is a passion and hobby of his. Seeing Vasyl’s hometown makes me feel closer to him, closer to Kosiv and the west, and maybe closer to a return trip to Ukraine, too!

Monday, July 11, 2011

118 lbs from Ukraine!

Four months after leaving Ukraine, my luggage just arrived, in a humongous shipping box via US State Dept. (photo by Elissa).

I had to leave Ukraine in a hurry in early March, medivac'ed to DC for what turned out to be a minor medical problem. Other PCVs who were in DC at the time discovered the same thing. But we all made the most of it.

I had to pack my stuff in Starobelsk really fast, though, and then leave it all in the hands of my Regional Manager Vasyl to pick it up and have the PC ship it out. I got the stuff yesterday. It has traveled around the world, been inspected and re-inspected, and finally got into the hands of the State Department, which couldn’t seem to get the name or address right after several emails, phone calls and messages spelling it out over and over.

This is the same State Department headed by Hilary Clinton, that oversees our international relations? It had trouble getting a package to Ohio? Well it did put the luggage in the heaviest, thickest, largest, strongest shipping box I have ever seen. It alone weighed over 18 lbs, because our strict weight limit was 100 lbs!

Then the huge shipping box hit another snag. When it got to an Ohio shipper, it had trouble with the address, too, which was my daughter's work address at Sylvania Advantage newspaper because I thought it would be easiest from Ukraine. Nope! The delivery guy called Elissa a few weeks ago and said he’d been all over the Toledo area and could not find the corner of Sylvania and Advantage.

What about the 901 Washington Street. Oh, right. Okay, package on the way. It finally arrived at its destination, addressed to Aryfrancine, last week. That might have been a State Department error, as well, and why it took so long to get to a destination in Toledo.

The State Department is probably better at tasks other than shipping. I doubt this is high on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s agenda. I understand it. There are other more important priorities at the USSD, like our relations with Pakistan, the Middle East, northern Africa.

Best to thank the Lord for large packages, and "better late than never." And I do!

Where am I?

The news hasn't been so great lately. Persistent high unemployment, the #1 economic issue. Job growth continues to falter badly, clouding hope for economic recovery. Disparity between CEOs and workers’ salaries increasing. Economic growth and the pace of change is slow, very slow. Retro leaders in high places. Rising prices and lower wages. Elderly on back burner of political agenda. Public confidence on the decline.

Where am I?

Am I still in Ukraine?

Nope. It’s the USA, and its typical news since I’ve been back.

A New York Times’ poll a few months ago confirmed that the “nation’s mood is at the lowest level in two years.” Most Americans are pessimistic about the economy and the overall direction of the country. Public confidence is at a low point. “A Dour Public Mood,” the NYT calls it (21 April 2011).

Mine is too. I thought my dour mood might be a result of transitioning from Ukraine. I’m glad to be home and I miss Ukraine at the same time. But maybe it has more to do with finding the same pessimism and problems here as face the citizens of ever-struggling Ukraine.

What’s going on here at home? Is the conflict between President Obama and the Congress stalling reform?

Do our elected legislative leaders know about the recent AFL-CIO Executive Paywatch research study that shows CEO salaries increased by 23% in 2010. Do they know that the average CEO salary is $11.5 million a year, and the average workers salary is $33,000 (Bureau of Labor Statistics)? One CEO made $84 million. Do they care?

The AFL-CIO report says that 299 CEOs received a combined total of $3.5 billion in 2010, “enough to pay median wages for 102,325 ordinary workers.”

That's simply staggering. In recommending this report on facebook, my friend Suzanne asked, “How much did your pay increase?"

That reminded me that Social Security, on which millions of elderly are living, myself included, has not had an increase in two years. Not a dime. Looks like it will be more of the same next year. Not only that, the cost of prescription drug plans and supplemental insurance that is deducted from Social Security checks is increasing too. It's simple. Do the numbers! How can we keep up?

It makes me feel like a Ukrainian: disheartened and pessimistic. Okay, I need an attitude adjustment. But for heaven’s sake, our country needs some uplifting soon. Budget debates have become poor excuses for avoiding the real issues, and Obama can't seem to get traction on these issues.

As far as I'm concerned, caving in to the very rich and to giant corporations who pay no taxes, and to tea party Republicans who care less about the poor and workers, is not "compromise." It's public policy. And it affects the majority of Americans, hard-working Americans, Americans desperately looking for jobs. Congress is wrong on the economy, and currently on the debt-ceiling issue as well.

I hope Obama gets the message that elected Bill Clinton: "It's the economy, stupid!" And zeroing in further, "It's all about jobs!" "Create jobs, create hope!" That's my new mantra. I think it would be a good slogan for Obama's next run.

America is not Ukraine, but many of the issues are similar, and most of all, the pessimism and lack of confidence in those who rule are the same. That’s the worst news of all.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Ying and Yang of Harmony

Harmony means something positive to me, something to strive for, connoting peacefulness and alignment. In music it means a chord; in art, perspective; in nature, balance; in life, peace, getting along. The meaning derives from ancient Greece and from far-eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and the Tao.

It was my PCV friend Emily, an English teacher in Sechuan, China, who gave me another view. In contemporary China, she said, “harmony” has come to mean “don’t rock the boat.” It means don’t question authority, don’t advocate for reform, don’t think out of the box, don’t criticize those in power. It is evoked to avoid change and to promote conformity and uniformity. And indeed there have been dire consequences in modern China for those who dare to upset the “harmony” of the status quo.

I guess this is the ying and yang of “harmony,” although I think Emily would argue with me on this too. Her time in China has given her different insights.

Can we simply say that "everything has its other side," like a coin, including harmony, like male and female, sun and moon, good and evil? So the ying and yang of harmony might be war and peace, intolerance and tolerance, the (seeming) stability of one voice and the cacophony of many voices, the messiness of democracy and the leanness (some would say meanness) of dictatorship?

I’m going ‘round in circles on this one, maybe going too far, especially the closer my thinking veers toward the political realm. I think this is where Emily was coming from, though. There are things about Chinese political life she finds distressing. She's still there, toughing it out. Like PCVs everywhere, she embraces the positive. But she has an interesting perspective on China today, and given it's rising star on the global horizon, I find it fascinating.

So I think about "harmony" and its connotations in different ways now. Food for thought.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


The Blair Museum, with a few of the more than 700 lithophanes, including rare Lincoln portrait; Mount Vesuvius erupting, in blue stained glass frame; the globes and shades of lamps featuring shimmering romantic scenes and landscapes; hanging lamps and household items; a lovely tin church with lithophane windows. Below, Barby in front of the museum and garden with bright blue sculpture,and another framed lithophane, many of which look like quaint illustrations from 19th century texts (and, Barby says, "may well be!").

I went to Toledo Botonical Garden on Saturday, formerly known as Crosby Gardens, to visit with my old friend Barby, who is a docent at The Blair Museum of Lithophanes, a museum on the grounds of the Garden.

I had heard of this collection years ago, when Mr. Laurel Blair lived on Robinwood Avenue in the Old West End. We were living a few blocks up the street. He would open his home every now and then so people could view his ever-growing collection. I never made it inside, although I told myself a thousand times, every time I passed the old Victorian mansion, that I should do it.

Better late than never. I had a lovely tour of the precious collection, bequeathed to Cosby Gardens upon Mr. Blair’s death. What a gift. As the brochure tells us “Lithophanes are three-dimensional translucent porcelain plaques which when backlit reveal detailed magical images. First created in Europe in the 1820s, the largest collection of this 19th century art form in the world is now on view at the Blair Museum of Lithophanes.”

Right here in Toledo, in our own backyard, like Hines Farm and the Blues. The Blair Museum has a varied collection of lithophanes mounted and framed in stained glass, lamps, daily housewares, and craft and art pieces, mostly made in Europe between the 1820s and 1890s. There’s a rare lithophane portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a young man, created in the late 1860s to commemorate his assassination. The lithophane of Mount Vesuius erupting is beautiful. The lamps shimmer. There is also a special summer exhibit of lithophanes by contemporary artist Hannah Blackwell, who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and spent time in Hungary perfecting the 19th-century methods, which involves painstakingly cutting wax, making a plaster mold, then casting and firing porcelain lithophanes. A book by Museum curator Dr. Margaret Carney, an excellent and informative art history, is on sale in the gift shop area as you enter the cottage museum. The website is fascinating, too (

Great surprises come in small packages. The Blair Museum of Lithophones is among them. Light, art and imagination come to life in these magical lithophanes, which Mr. Blair had the foresight to collect, preserve, and make available to the public.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Djokovic wins Wimbleton

Yahoo image: Novak Djokovic

Loren followed tennis closely and Wimbleton especially. I think he would have been satisfied with the outcome of this year’s Wimbleton finals: Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic beat Raja Nadal in an epic tennis match today.

Loren was always for the underdog. And he was also a sort of expert on the complex and complicated history of Yugoslavia and the former Yugoslavia, where Djokovic’s family is from. It is one of the most complicated histories of all time, and for some time, as sports writer Mike Hodgkiss wrote in The Telegraph, an English newspaper, Serbia was "a pariah-nation."

Djokovic, born in 1987 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, once a citadel of ethnic harmony, trained and rose to glory in professional tennis during one of the most turbulent eras in Yugoslav history, the fall of the communist state and the rise of extreme ethnic violence and ethnic wars fron the early 1990s throughout the decade. Genocide and ethnic cleansing reached a new level of international crimes against humanity.

I still can’t sort it all out, nor could I as it unfolded on television. Loren instructed me from time to time. I wish he were here now to fill me in. Today the former Yugoslavia is three new countries with distinct ethnic makeup. I’d like to think that Djokovic’s victory can be savored by all factions, all parties, all ethnic groups. So does Djokovic, who is a member of Peace and Sport, a Monaco-based international organization promoting peace in the world through sports. Like former Wimbleton champion Roger Federer of Switzerland, one of my favorites, Djokovic is a “fan of languages,” and speaks four fluently (Wikipedia bio). He lives in Monaco.

Overlapping Djokovic’s rise and Yugoslavia’s wars is a bit tricky, but for sure the family lived during the worst of times. Loren could tell me. It would be interesting to find out more, but for now, the family is living through the best of times. It’s a nice victory for tennis, and maybe world peace. Loren would be happy about that.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Loren and Nelson Mandela

“I am the captain of my soul.” Nelson Mandela

If there is a special place for magnificent souls in an after-life, in the quantum hologram of forever, Loren and Nelson Mandela would be together.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and about Nelson Mandela especially. Maybe it’s because of the freedom uprisings in the Middle East and northen Africa. Maybe it’s because so many famous people of my generation are dying, recently Peter Falk AKA Columbo, leaving a void in the cultural fabric of our lives. Nelson Mandela is 93 years old. It’s only a matter of time before he joins the fallen heroes of our era. For that matter, it’s only a matter of time for all of us. Also, it's the 4th of July and we are celebrating freedom.

Nelson Mandela was one of Loren’s biggest heroes. Few leaders touched his heart more than this giant of freedom and forgiveness.

After serving for 27 years in jail for his courageous fight against apartheid, Mandela returned to South Africa to finish what he had started. In 1994 he became South Africa’s first black president. He served one term, then left politics to younger leaders. His dream lives on. Mandela united the global village in his heroic struggle for freedom.

Loren asked me once: “How many people could spend almost 30 years of their life in jail, for the crime of fighting for human freedom, and emerge with forgiveness in their heart?“

I don’t know. I think I would have been enraged, seeking “justice,” wanting revenge. Not Mandela. How did Mandela find peace and the courage to forgive? How did he overcome anger for the injustice he suffered for so long? How come he didn’t emerge an embittered old man who receded into the shadows of history?

I think Loren understood as few could because of his own struggles growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome before anyone knew what it was. What other’s considered his “oddness” often left Loren alone, stranded on the margins of social life and social activities. Unable to explain or to participate, he watched from the sidelines, sometimes saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, sometimes erupting into anger and rage.

He found solace in his hobbies, his causes, his reading, his heroes, and his understanding of goddess spirituality and her place in the cosmos, especially in the beauty of the environment, which Loren worshipped, respected, fought to conserve.

Mandela and Loren. They both fought demons that held them back and held them down; they never gave up; they worked through anger, frustration and hopelessness at times, to emerge as triuimphant spirits.

“Now really, sis, I’m no Nelson Mandela!” That would be Loren, putting things in perspective.

Well, I know, on one level that’s true, but on the level where it matters, the level of human survival, matters of the soul, it's different. Loren argues with me, no doubt. But hey its July 4th. We're celebrating freedom and the triumph of the human spirit. That's why I think Nelson and Loren are spiritual twins. That's why I like to think that they will merge together in the quantum hologram of forever.

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