The Last Shall Be First

I’ve had quite a pattern of “lasts” that have informed far too many of my bad choices along the way. As a young person, the idea of being last felt like major failure. In my family, “failure was not an option.” The joke? Most of my last places were in the top tiers. That’s right. I was the last of the best as opposed to dead last. And yet, it felt the same to me. Last was last and first was good, better, best.

My first example of this phenomenon is in third grade. Back in the late fifties, “exceptional” children did not attend classes in the same school as the regular kids. Instead, like today’s magnet programs, there were designated schools for a wide variety of special classes.

The Little Engine that Could

My brother was the first in our little inner city school to be offered an opportunity to attend one of these schools for high performing, high IQ students. He tested very well and upon entering the 4th grade, he rode public transportation to a school that offered gifted and talented classes through 8th grade. When I came up to grade, my mother wanted the same program for me. But unlike my brother, I struggled with the testing and I remember how the proctor told my mother, in my presence, “she’s borderline and if you send her to this program, she will be at the bottom of the barrel.” Lovely.

From that point on, I was on the lookout for more rock bottom experiences.

No surprise, then, when I would be the last one picked for kick ball or the last one in line for lunch. I was the last to understand the math and the last to get the joke.

I played a clarinet in that special school. Last chair. Later, I was accepted into all-city band. Of course, last chair again.

In high school, my mother insisted I take German instead of French or Spanish. And, as a result, I had the opportunity to compete for a statewide AFS summer experience in Germany between by Junior and Senior years. Only thirty students from the state were invited. What an honor. Of course, upon being accepted into the program, I was told I was at the bottom of the class and would have the farthest to go language-wise.

When graduation time came in high school, the top seniors of the class sat on stage for an in-school program where scholarships and the like were announced. We sat in order by our grade point average. I’m sure it’s no shock which seat was mine. Last of the best. I was drowning.

There were other lasts, but these are the ones that replayed regularly through my head as I weathered college and my early adult years. Never good enough: I was the little engine that hoped she could, one day, be at the top of her game, the top of the hill. But even when things appeared to go my way, I got really good at finding the dark cloud.

When I was accepted into a Master’s Degree acting program in New York, that felt good until I realized the school was on its last legs. They must have accepted everyone who applied. This was my self-damaging talk at its best.

What is the upshot of this negativity and self-deprecation? I’m sure there is no standard life response. For me, I translated it all into a drive for fame, not particularly fortune, but fame alone would fit the bill. Unfortunately, the drive was often broken by the old voices and the old scripts. Once a project that was aimed for fame went awry, I walked away before the last seat opened up. Better to have no seat than that one.

Ironically, when I encountered Christ and became a woman of faith in 1979, a common reaction by my peers of the time was something like, “You? You became a Christian? You are the last person I’d ever think would do that!” This particular comment became a signature line for my testimony, as it spoke volumes. The last person indeed.

But all of these examples are about my “first half of life,” a phrase used by such writers as Fr. Richard Rohr (“Falling Upward”), James Hollis (“Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life”), and columnist David Brooks (“Second Mountain”). Clearly, the more relevant half now is the second half which I am grateful to finally enter, or should I say, fall into. In this half, there is no last or first. The ego can rest and be released while the soul flourishes.

Rohr writes that the transition between these times of our life is like moving from a “survival dance” to a “sacred dance.” My dance card is full, but not with people, tasks, and shoulds, but with simplicity, discovery, and hopefully, a growing awareness of now. I still have a lot to learn and experience in this new chair.

That is, assuming I get through this dreadful year of political hijinks, climate catastrophes, and Covid 19. Will this be the last? Or the first?

The Black Cat

My mother loved animals. All animals. Both her back and front yards had become overgrown over the years as she was unable to maintain them. She was unconcerned and considered her yard her private “woods.” Wildflowers abounded along with perennials, bushes, trees and tree seedlings, and all manner of growing surprises. And critters.

She had chipmunks and squirrels and snakes and mice. And of course, one of her besties, the opossum who lived in the falling down shed. A great variety of birds frequented her special feeding station every day, many of them so familiar that they sat waiting for her every morning and evening.

For a season, she had a cat (trained to never chase the other critters) and even a dog. The cat, Adatinya, died at a ripe old age, literally collapsing at my mother’s feet. Mom considered it an honor. The dog became problematic early on; a stray who had adopted my mom, he wouldn’t stay in the yard. The neighbors complained and in the end, the dog catcher got him. Mom cried.

This is just backstory for the tale to come, to demonstrate her love for living things. That is, until the black cat took her over the edge.

It was a beautiful day, so Mom decided to sit out front, crack the storm door so Adatinya could come out and sit with her while Mom did her word search puzzles. Sure enough, Adatinya slipped out and lay at my mother’s feet until, out of nowhere, a black cat jumped out of the bushes and attacked Adatinya. Mom managed to block the cat from giving chase into the house. Her blood pressure skyrocketed, the black cat fled.

About 45 minutes later, Mom decided to try again. She cracked the storm door and Adatinya came out after a time. Mom immersed herself in the puzzles. But of course, the black cat attacked again. This time, the cat managed to follow Adatinya into the house, around and around they went. Mom used a broom to cast the demon out of her house. Her midday peace was ruined.

A few hours later, she tried again, cracked the storm door and all. The sun was close to setting, the birds were chirping. It was the golden hour.

How was it possible that the black cat would return? But it did and with a vengeance, once again slipping through my mother’s hands and giving hostile chase. My mother was apoplectic and determined to catch the devil.

After several trips around the house, Mom caught the cat. She held him (her?) down on the floor and began to strangle the life out of him. The cat’s bowels gave way. With only seconds to go, Mom cried out, dismayed.

Never had she hurt another creature. She let go. The cat was very still for several moments and then slowly stood and left her home on his own.

Mom wept. She called me to tell me all about it, in tears. The cat never came back again.

Spilled Milk

“No use crying over spilled milk!” is a well worn proverb and most likely, evolved from Europe where fairy lore was much beloved (fairies love milk). But, apparently, my Latvian mother was not a strong adherent.

To be fair, she is a product of the great depression that affected Europe nearly as much as the U.S. She knew what it meant to be poor and hungry. And then there was the Second World War when food was rationed and, unless a generous farmer lived nearby, milk and butter were rare.

That’s the back story to the physical realities that caused a brutal slapping across my head and face for trying to carry too many glass quarts of milk from the milk box into the house and to the kitchen (Note: Our portion of the house was like an odd railroad apartment: big room was family room, medium sized room was master bedroom, and kitchen. My brother and I shared an small room off the big room. We shared the bathroom with three upstairs “tenants.”) Anyway . . . to avoid dropping the quarts on the floor, I dropped them instead on my mother’s bed, thinking it was soft and would absorb the jolt. I didn’t consider the bottled striking one another. What a mess.

I was ten.

There is a deeper message here. The yelling and hitting obviously made a deep impression since that incident was over fifty years ago and I remember it vividly. But I also learned that my mother was deeply triggered by loss and waste.

As an immigrant after WW2, in 1951, she and my elderly father (25 years her senior), and my 5-year old brother [I was still in the womb], suffered many losses to come to this country. Identifying as Latvians after the war, they were shuttled from one displaced persons’ camp to another. With each truck ride, something more was left behind. No room, no room.

Before the war, in the late 30’s, my mother worked as a nanny for a wealthy German ship baron with a great fleet of merchant ships. As repatriation began in the 30’s to return to “Mother Germany,” this shipmaster decided to move his entire operation to Germany. Did Herta want to go with the family? They promised to take care of her. Besides, she spoke both fluent German and Latvian and some decent English to boot. She was a vibrant 20-something and it sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime. Or, so it seemed.

How could she have known what the war and the Third Reich would bring to her small bubble of a life? How could she have known that she would lose her only brother to the war, never see her father again or her stepmother, and within ten years, have nothing but a single trunk of clothes, pictures, books and memorabilia. And a guitar that was left at Grand Central Station: no room, no room.

In this country, during the 50’s, she and my father did the best they could. He spoke no English. They were janitors mostly and lived off the generosity of others. Eventually, my mother got a full-time office job as a clerk (a job she held for 30 years). They bought an old house near downtown Indianapolis and rented three rooms upstairs to make ends meet.

Then my father died at age 72. Once again, the loss overwhelmed her.

I believe, now, the anxiety and fear of raising two children alone in this strange new land, with very little income, no car (or driver’s license), and no ready understanding of how this country worked, took a great toll on her psyche.

Yes. On the day I broke those bottles of milk, they also broke my mother.

Who am I really?

My daughter, Lily, is working on updating her Russian paperwork. She came to this country at 15 by adoption and at 25, ten years after her arrival, she was not enthusiastic about renewing her citizenship. But times have changed and she is more than ready, despite Covid, despite the hassles and costs, she is determined to codify her heritage. I am proud of her.

Riga, Latvia

But it does make me wonder about my own identity. Not exactly a first generation immigrant, but the daughter of immigrants who arrived in this country from Latvia, via Germany, in February of 1951. Eight months later, I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was a fairly tight community of Latvians in Indianapolis at the time, and my father’s connections brought us there from North Carolina where our “sponsors” were. The racism there sent my parents fleeing North.

And yet, when my father died in 1963, my mother was one of the “early” widows in that community. She was not 100% Latvian, but half German, half Latvian. It was another mark against her. A widow with German ancestry. Most Latvian hated the Germans for all those years of occupation. They hated the Russians equally.

My mother lost her entree into the community through my father and slowly, bit by bit, we were ostracized as a family. But truth be told, my mother believed assimilation into America was a better choice anyway. And so we did. Less and less Latvian was spoken at home and American ways were adopted. We still attended Latvian events, but we didn’t have the money to buy the authentic “costumes” or belong to the right organizations. We wore the red, white and blue.

And so it was, that I and my older brother were not quite Latvian, certainly not German, but not quite American either. We walked a thin line between them all. When my mother was growing up in Riga, her German mother had convinced her that all things German were the way to go. And so, in the second World War, she “repatrioted” to Germany along with her employer for whom she was a nanny.

But it was her facile use of languages, (Latvian, German, and English) that earned her opportunities for emigration to the United States, despite her elderly husband (25 years her senior) and a 5 year old child.

All of this is to say, that my daughter’s journey makes me wonder if I have lost something precious. Despite my mother’s German mother, Herta was born and raised in Latvia and so was my father. I am a Latvian-American. I can still speak the language, but not well. When my late husband, Mike, and I adopted two children, we adopted them from Lativa. It was an emotional visit for me.

Does it matter now? I’m not sure. At one point, I had to make a choice. When we adopted our boys in 1996, I had to choose whether to continue to speak Latvian to them. It was not a task I was up to. And so, they have grown up American. While my half-sister, Inta, who lived in Estonia was still alive, I was reminded of my Latvian history each time we connected. But even she, after 50 years in Tallinn, became more Estonian than Latvian. Her child, Juri, and grandchildren know little Latvian, despite it’s proximity. We connect today in English, if at all.

There are families who maintained their rich Latvian heritage in the States. And to this day, they still speak Latvian in the home and whenever possible, congregate in the summer at Garezers (Michigan), or in community centers in their cities. My beloved cousin, Gaida, and her children, from Boston, maintained and sustained their heritage. When I am with her adult daughter, it is a type of embarrassment and sorrow that I am a weak speaker of my parents’ tongue. She is gracious to me, nonetheless.

Who am I? I am an American born woman to immigrants from Latvia, a small country on the Baltic. For many years, my parents’ country was under USSR control and for this reason, most Latvians are fiercely anti-Russian. I can’t blame them. And yet, my American husband and I adopted a teenager from St. Petersburg. We broke the norm. My half-sister was appalled.

Who am I? I love America because it gave my family every chance possible. My brother and I both attended college and I went on to two Master’s Degrees. Only in America. I have a sensitivity to the foreigner and respect people of different origins. I revel in people who speak more than one language.

I am an American. But my family needed a “sponsor” to reach these shores. They needed a helping hand. They were not the normal immigrants. My father was “too old.” And yet, my mother succeeded in breaking through all those barriers. I am the daughter of a fighter who would not accept “no” as an answer to her plight. I am the daughter of a man who spoke no English. I am the daughter who learned English on the street.

So, there was a turning point. I married an American and one of our primary connections was our faith. He did not speak Latvian, and really, why should he? In order to engage fully in a Latvian community (in Baltimore), we would have to give as much time to that connection as we gave to our local church. I chose my faith over my heritage. Did I do the right thing? Who’s to say?

My daughter, who has been here fifteen years, has chosen her heritage. She is fully engaged with the language and the culture, and I admire her for her fortitude. My boys, who were much younger (4 and 5) when they came to this country, did not have the same freedom of choice. They no longer speak Latvian. It’s a kind of sorrow, a kind of loss.

Now, my husband is gone (deceased in 2014) and really, there is nothing keeping me from re-engaging with my heritage? Will I do it? I doubt it. I respect my Latvian friends from my childhood, but it was not my way. I am a hybrid.

I Love You, But . . .

Here’s a phrase I abhor.

Love you butWhat in the world would someone be thinking? Can this phrase actually “soften” the blow of what comes next? I don’t think so.

Love has lost its power in today’s culture. Between “loving” certain foods and loving a piece of clothing or loving a movie, the use of the expression of loving a person has become quite lame. The last thing we need is to chip away at the full meaning of love in a relationship. Life together is already difficult.

Love should not have qualifiers. The whole point of love is the way it encompasses non-judgmentalism, acceptance, endurance, forgiveness, and patience.

I actually had someone say, “I love you, but I don’t like that outfit on you.” I would assume the person wouldn’t like my outfit whether they loved me or not.

Oh I suppose the phrase could be used in combination with another feeling. For instance, “I love you, but you make me angry.” Does adding “I love you” make it less searing love

to be angry? Does the person on the receiving end of your anger need to hear the proviso? Besides, the only person who “makes” you angry is you. Anger is a response. Love is an active verb.

Instead, because I love you, I can tell you the truth.

 

36 Stops

April 2018 LeoMy two point five grandson lives with me; that means my adult daughter also lives with me (a typical millennial situation: limited funds etc.). I am retired. Almost every morning and evening, Leo and I have the routine of walking the dog, a 10-year old, one-eyed Boston Terrier who acts like the energizer bunny. Last night, the walk was heavily interrupted with stops and I was eaten alive by mosquitoes. I complained to my daughter about the slow going. She said I was exaggerating.

This morning, I counted the stops. That’s right, 36 stops to get around a block and a half, whether it was for Rocky or Leo, it was a trial in patience and discovery.

Why do we stop? Naturally, for Rocky, it’s marking the way, sniffing the previous four-legged travelers, and ultimately finding the perfect spot to dump. Unfortunately, he seems to have a bad stomach today and there were stops to chew on grass as well.

Leo, on the other hand, had a much broader variety of reasons to halt progress: pick up sticks; find large rocks and try to lift them; find small rocks and toss them; find extra long grass and yank it; visit neighbor’s urban chickens (meet human owners who reveal the chicken names: Batman, Chickie, and PacMan; jump over one-inch breaks in sidewalk, wait at street and/or alley crosswalks; walk six times back and forth on yellow street barrier leftover from the 4th of July parade (hello, public works?); watch a squirrel climb a tree; examine black rubber thingy on the sidewalk; watch a cat that watches us; venture up other people’s sidewalks; review letters on a political yard sign; sit in the dew-laden grass just because he can; stand under a crape myrtle waiting for “Bibi” to shake the flowers and water droplets onto his head; look for the dog Skipper who lives in the little white house (not available apparently today); stand and then jump off a water/sewer contraption in someone’s yard (daily); walk the bottom step of a duplex and consider making a big jump (not yet); climb over wooden beams that line a driveway; watch Rocky poop; visit second yard that has 4 chickens; throw magnolia tree leaves into a puddle; and watch the garbage guys pick up our trash.

I wouldn’t miss it for the world. What will tomorrow bring?

 

Life and Death

Zambia, like many African countries, is a collection of dichotomies. Life and death happens around everyone in quick succession. For many years, particularly in the 80’s and 90’s, people were dying faster than they were living. AIDS struck like a thief in the night, taking both adults and children.

IPrincess Kasune zulu have been reading a wonderful memoir called Warrior Princess by Princess Kasune Zulu, who grew up in Zambia but now lives in Chicago. She has been a great force in providing help to her people here through a variety of organizations and networking. But as a child and young adult, she was surrounded by the specter of death and dying.

In the short time I have been here, several relatives of teachers and staff have died. zambia funeralTraditionally, the relatives do not change their clothes or bathe until the body is laid to rest, sometimes days later. The “funeral” encompasses all of these days. Also, many travel far distances to attend the final day of this funeral. As a kindness and in the spirit of many small businesses, the Village supports many of these funeral days for staff by providing food and transportation and often, even the burial plot and stone.

newbornAt the same time, there have also been several births, most recently a young son to a teacher. Births are not an easy thing here. There are no medications of any kind, the women must bring to the hospital their own blankets, plastic sheeting for the afterbirth, a bucket, large bottle of bleach, and food. The women are discouraged from crying out in pain and therefore, endure much pain in silence, tears flowing freely. Children often go without names for some many days: after all, the child could die.

 

Today was a different kind of funeral or memorial service, primarily a white one. Kathleen and Benedict (my hosts), were asked to officiate the service for the 95 year old mother of a family friend. It was held outside on the beautiful grounds of Ibis Gardens (a conference center/resort across the road from the Village). The teens who sing on the worship team at the Village of Hope church were invited to participate in the service. There was an odd mash up of people, the Ibis owner and his extended family, the staff, and a few of us from the Village. After the gentle service, lunch was served to all, made baby monkey twoin lovely Ibis fashion with traditional foods as well as simple fare. One relative had a rescued monkey whose mother was killed for food, another friend’s pre-teen daughter climbed the tree, many ate their meals on the grass, and still others clustered in small social circles for conversation. Most dressed nicely but casually, and generally sandals were the norm, no matter the age of the person.

There are other examples of life and death. Pets are generally around for service (cats are mousers and dogs are watch-animals). The cats live as they can and eat what they forage. They have kittens: some live and some die. It’s survival of the strong. Chickens roam free and often become a meal. It’s rural and it’s Africa. And that’s just how it is. Life is a challenge. Death is pushed away as long as possible. But there is a toll to be paid.