Stay-at-home orders opened a new door for me. I found my way back to shelved relationships, sifting through memories, and writing my way out of uncertainty. I spent a couple of afternoons purging my books and found how much my obsessions have changed. Books arrive in life when our hearts need the topics most.
Like relationships I shelved or shamefully discarded, my memoir grew moldy in drawers and closets. Distance is not always the wrong choice. If the distance is allowed to do its job, it ushers in perspective.
Pandora’s music app is a constant companion reliving the music that held me up during my early writing days. True, I am biased, but the decade of the nineties produced some of the most introspective lyrics and beautiful music for me. Of course, I was in my twenties when emotional dysfunction peaks before perspective start its necessary ascent.
Yesterday, a line from a Sarah McLachlan song, I Will Remember You, both jetted me back to the past and emboldened my resolve for the present and uncertain future.
The line follows. “I’m so afraid to love you but more afraid to lose. Clinging to a past that doesn’t let me choose.
You can listen to the full song by following this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSz16ngdsG0.
The blog needed a reboot, but I did, too. In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting new work, but in the meantime, please peruse the new audio and video links and read posts that you might have missed.
Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay hopeful.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_efe10b790d664796b7fb026846a5c39b7Emv2-e1603225109268.jpg264500Anna Sochockyhttp://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-04-24 16:02:052020-10-28 17:50:09Clinging to a past that doesn’t let you choose
On the page, I play with the words and definitions I have scribbled: exile, refugee, expatriate, immigrant, emigrant, displaced, and evicted. The meanings of these words complement and compete with each other. Each label is by turns romantic and a badge of social disdain.
Exile: forced removal from one’s country, a person involuntarily separating oneself from the original home of place of birth.
Refugee: one who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.
Expatriate: to withdraw (oneself) from a residence in or allegiance to one’s native country; to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere.
Immigrant: a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.
Emigrant: a person who departs one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere.
Displaced: one expelled or forced to flee from home or homeland.
Evicted: to be forced out; ejected.
Or are the definitions in opposition to each other, something like this?
Unbalanced in their linguistic weight, these definitions cross over and intersect, changing positions with each other. None of the descriptions can be categorically applicable to my mother or father, or even to me.
Where do the characters of my family fit?
Each of us, in our own particular way, can claim our own tales of displacement. True, my father was the only real exile in our family, a man condemned by history, by geography, by politics, by war. Still, he was also an immigrant tracing a circuitous path from Ukraine through England to America. The word exile, though, provokes suspicion. Exiled from what exactly? By whom? For what wrongdoing? This demarcation, in particular, tracks an individual through the years and is a mantle not easily discarded.
Likewise, the essential emotional core of an expatriate is forever unchanged: I may live here, but I belong elsewhere. An air of romance infiltrates the definition of an expatriate as if the label suggests universal impermanence, a bargain between here and there that is not fraught with uneasiness but with intrigue. As a foreign property owner with an offshore bank account and a returning citizen to another country other than the one she lives in permanently, my mother is an expatriate.
Still, both my parents were legally and culturally classified as immigrants, foreign citizens with American passports, and in my mother’s case because of the occasional Midwestern vernacular that percolated under the surface of an English accent. Immigration is a choice for some like my father, or a fait accompli for others like my mother. Unlike the categories of exile and expatriate, the classification of ‘immigrant’ is chronically untidy and debatable by those without a clear self-definition.
How do I describe myself? Am I an exile like my father? Absolutely not. Am a British citizen? Yes. My birth certificate bears the stamp of the county government of Bury St. Edmunds. Am I English? Told by my parents for as long as I can remember that I was English, I believed this to be accurate, yet the family joke about my lineage has been that my bloodline is not unlike Heinz 57 steak sauce: a tablespoon each of English and Ukrainian, several teaspoons of Polish and Scottish, a pinch of Irish, and a third of a cup full of American by experience. Over the years, the Heinz 57 metaphor became my truth.
Am I an expatriate like my mother? I opened an offshore bank account in Jersey a few years ago, but this tangible authenticity does not make me an expatriate. Am I an immigrant? I am legally considered an immigrant, but because my accent is not English and I have never lived for what others think to be a sufficient length of time in England, many do not consider this to be one of my truths. Still, to be naturalized into another country of citizenship at the tender age of thirteen when so much of one’s understanding of origin and place in the world has already set like gelatin is perennially troublesome.
Sometimes, my immigrant status reveals a romantic view of others. Years ago, on a shopping trip with a friend and her mother to find a maid of honor dress to wear at my friend’s wedding, the mother prattled on about how my parents’ lives were like the characters in the movie, Dr. Zhivago. Romantic, larger than life, so delightfully foreign and mysterious, both affected by war, by separation, by immigration. I felt like I was on display next to the mannequins.
“Where are you from?” strangers ask, and my response changes with my mood. I am filled with dread when this question arises because any answer I give feels slippery or shifty and is always at least partially inaccurate. The borders of my strange history are porous like Ukraina’s geography or the edges of England’s seacoast that is slowly being taken back by the sea. What does it mean to be “from” somewhere, anyway? Does this reference mean a dot on a map? A culture? A family lineage? A particular house or street? A landscape or a continent? A specific time in history?
How long does it take to claim a place as home anyway? I always seem to be more committed to the four walls I live in rather than its actual geographic location, four walls like my grandmother’s house, the apartment at the Veterans Administration, or my mother’s own haven in Sioux Falls. There are the English four walls I write about, those I write in, the home I imagine buying in England. But how does one describe what it feels like to be unmoored from one’s own history when the ground underneath either shifts or sinks but is never firm?
Is there another set of definitions, ones that apply to me more than all the others? Do not be trite. Do not even consider writing words like a gypsy on the page. You are not a gypsy. You are not a wanderer. You are not a newcomer. Fine. How about rooted. Absolutely not, I grunt, crossing out the word with my pencil. Rooted implies something entrenched, fixed, a person with a historical lineage that can be easily accessed. Try again.
I am English because of my birth and experience, and, in truth, I am Ukrainian by blood only. What would my life have been like if my family had returned to England? Was it my intolerable grief over my father’s death that forced my mother to choose to stay in America in the end? Did I ever really want America? Is my longing for home a particularly American obsession or an immigrant one? I scribble the word “unrooted” in the margins of the paper.
Am I unrooted? Without question.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/root.jpg8531280Anna Sochockyhttp://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 15:47:252020-10-28 12:37:20The Politics of Naming
Heirlooms from my father’s family wrapped in brown paper packages
with blue ink and foreign postmarks faded by a prairie rain burst
will not be delivered to the cream house with green trim and gable roof
where I live. The house belongs to my husband in name only —
that’s what he tells me. But I am relieved by my own perceived lack of responsibility
to stone and wood, glass and metal, to a past that will never arrive
neatly parceled without warning on the doorstep in bundles survivors always carry.
Steamer trunks and shabby suitcases —
the essentials – linen, utensils, wool sweaters –
the familiar possessions – family photos and violins, clocks, and silver candlesticks.
In a movie, the refugee husband tells his wife, “You must choose — the lamp or the vase,” tossing the sacrificed object over his shoulder
in the farmer’s field. Is my grandmother’s engagement ring still buried in the mud?
Maybe another woman wore the ring without guilt, passing on my inheritance
to her own daughter, sidestepping my anonymous birth like a salver of food
handed over the heads of guests at a king’s banquet. I will never inherit
My mother wears her wedding band with the sapphire ring he gave her
on Christmas morning. Her gift to him that year: a hand-carved music box
played Lara’s Theme to the Ukrainian couple nestled in a winter sleigh,
the woman’s pink cheeks and bow smile, the man’s firm hands on the reins.
It went unnoticed. Each note collapsed under the weight of my father’s memory.
The war made objects a burden, you see. His family’s land, home, brother,
freedom, and all taken, he came to America to see if the streets were paved
with gold. Coins buried deep in his shaving stick, a watch, his glasses —
my father carried little. He hid photos of his parents across the continents between the pages
of his prayer book I did not inherit. After his death,
his stony hands clasped the burning scripture.
This, the marker of his life, this, the reminder of his death I cannot hold between my fingers.
The only artifact I still want.
The inheritance I carry in my suitcase does not let me choose between the lamp and the vase
will never compete with the touch of something solid.
This is not the loneliness of my father. I believe the souls of Ukrainians have been sad for centuries. This loneliness is mine to manage.
The choice has always been mine to make. In empty spaces, my voice
bounces against blank walls. Driving past old apartments, I leave
the address, the phone number, the streets behind easily. Because the choice
has always been mine to make between my Barbies and Beatrix Potter books
I am not like my mother. Not like my father in the war, hanging on to the things I cannot hold.
In my red, red heart, do I ask too much from the world? The small desires that get me
up in the morning, but the large ones make me dangerous and holy, carnal, and blameless.
I tell the truth. I want a life that is not neutral.
This is my inheritance. Silent as snow falling at midnight on Christmas Eve in London.
Long ago, I learned that verse is the solace for whom bread is not enough.
I can choose between the lamp and the vase without remorse.
I’m told that I have always been callous
with my belongings, but this is a lie. A child born to parents who believe
that bread is enough carries the burden of choosing
between sacrifice and desire without punishment. I am on the run —
a fugitive, still running from
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_7a1f4c28de394d71813c3ee4a2a3ed99mv2.jpg196290Anna Sochockyhttp://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 15:28:522020-10-28 12:37:55A past that never arrives
When a man answered the phone at a local Minneapolis crematorium, I prefaced the reason for my call with feeble qualifiers for my inquiry. My father died and chose cremation; I began. Recently, he asked. No. A long time ago. I decided not to be present, not to see his body before the cremation. Would it be possible for me to visit with a staff member about the cremation process? The man on the other end of the line received my question graciously. I was thankful. Come by tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., he replied. I hung up the phone and exhaled.
I arrived at the cremation society the next day and sat in a mauve room with lace curtains and low light. A mahogany table sat between two finely upholstered chairs, the fabric the shade of the painted walls. A matching loveseat faced the wall to my left, perpendicular to the seat in which I fidgeted. The muted light cast motionless shadows of a marble urn on the wall. A vase with a lid, I thought ruefully. Outside, a hearse idled, the driver waiting for the signal to proceed to the cemetery. In a room of an exquisite quiet, barely alert to the strains of classical music wafting through the building, I waited.
Dr. Serhij Sochocky died on June 30, 1980.
The door opened. I introduced myself to a man in his forties or fifties, with chestnut eyes magnified by thick lenses. After explaining the reasons for my visit, he appeared both curious and solicitous. He spoke slowly, listing the available alternatives for concluding services: burial, cremation, entombment, and donation to a medical facility for research purposes. Thirty-three percent of dispositions are cremations. Concern over the amount of space set aside for cemeteries, more than the cost, accounts for cremation’s rising popularity, though the choice to be cremated does not preclude a funeral. Indeed, he encouraged final services for both the benefit of the deceased as well as the living.
The man paused while I scribbled notes. He crossed his leg and stroked his well-kept beard. When I asked him why he chose to become a funeral director, he replied that he came of age at a time in history when death did not frighten the living, when the passing of a loved one was marked over a period of days and months to accommodate the tides of grief.
Our conversation turned to the desires of the departed and their families. What is the most unusual item, in your experience, that a person has been buried with? I asked. Raising his hands for emphasis, he ticked off a litany of things he once deposited in a casket of a woman: a six-pack of beer, Eddie Arnold records, a Dairy Queen cup, two pairs of socks, some carpeting, and a bottle of whiskey. She loved beer and whiskey, Eddie Arnold, and Dairy Queen ice cream. Her feet were always cold, and after years in the same house, she finally saved enough to carpet the floors.
As he finished the list, the funeral director remarked, “Good thing we put the body in the casket first!” After forty minutes in conversation, I was convinced that his gentle commitment to both the living and the dead, and the pride with which he spoke could melt a stone. I asked to see the crematorium. I followed the funeral director through the hushed hallways. I could not help but think I was slightly mad to be in this place on my lunch hour, as if I was an amateur reporter scribbling notes for a three-inch article in a neighborhood paper, only to be lost amidst the want ads and garage sale notices. At the bottom of the stairs, a compact maze of rooms and hallways unfolded like the cellars underneath a restaurant.
The cold temperature of preservation breathed between pale, gray walls. I swallowed hard, realizing the draft originated from refrigeration. Silently, I told myself not to cry in front of this kind man when he opened the door to the cremation chamber. Usually, a cremation lasts between two to four hours he began. Most family members do not attend. In some communities, like in the Hindu culture, tradition requires the oldest son to light the pyre or push the ignition button in contemporary crematoriums. Once laid in a shallow cardboard container with handle grips, each body is placed inside the brick chamber. Varied sources of heat reach temperatures of 2,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Skin, organs, and muscles vaporize immediately.
After cremation, a body’s silhouette, mapped by bone fragments, lingers. The cranium, femur, tibia, humerus, and sternum fragments are swept into a container beneath the chamber and are ground to ashes. Though his lips moved, gradually, his softly spoken commentary evaporated, and I fell into the real reason for my visit. I was seeking forgiveness.
Forgiveness for turning away from my mother’s sage counsel that I see my father one last time. Forgiveness for swallowing my grief so wholly until it poisoned my spirit’s well. Forgiveness for disavowing any intimation, my grief required a marker. And forgiveness for failing to see the affirmation of life in the rituals left behind after death.
Sometimes it takes years to mark a loss, especially when the loss is not only the inevitability of death but the passage of a history that has defined you.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_1d7a43c7a8be41658a76876c4b8a60f77Emv2.png8201370Anna Sochockyhttp://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:492020-10-28 18:00:15Marking the first loss
Outside, five unshaven men dressed in black t-shirts, khaki shorts, and faded blue jeans whistle in our direction on our approach. “Just keep moving and keep your eyes straight ahead,” I mutter to Brenda Passing one of the men, the oldest, I level the coldest stare I can summon.
“I like your scarf. I like how you have it wrapped around your blonde hair, honey,” the man responds, but not in kind, brushing cigarette ash off his t-shirt. His frame, unbalanced by a beer-induced paunch, weaves.
“Heh, my friend and I just want a beer and something to eat, o.k.?” I know that my attempt at a snarl is weak in its innocence, but the stranger’s move to block the door only emboldens me to cross his path.
“Are you here to celebrate the fourth of July, honey? Come on, let my friends and I buy you both a beer.” The man plants his Birkenstock clad feet apart at the bar’s threshold. A dozen empty beer glasses line the steps and one of his friends, a small man with a mass of long curly red hair and a beard to match, sets another one down. He is the only one in the close group that is dressed in army fatigues. He does not talk but flashes a slightly disconcerting smile over and over again, a smile that seems to have little to do with the present.
“That’s Sonny,” the man in the Birkenstocks says, noting my stare. “Now Sonny, why don’t you introduce yourself to these lovely young girls. I’m Leighton, by the way. This here is John, and over there is Richard.” The man named Richard suddenly looks up from what appears to be his stand up comedy act with one audience member and nods. The man named John does not speak. Instead, he continues a long conversation with his beer.
“Look, we just want something to eat, o.k.,” I grunt, grabbing Brenda’s hand and pushing my way past the man named Leighton’s broad and imposing figure.
“O.k. O.k. Just wanted to buy you a beer all right. My boys and I won’t give you any trouble, right boys?’ Richard returns to his stand-up routine. John stares at the ground. Sonny smiles his creepy, clown-like smile once again. Brenda and I squeeze our way into the dark bar.
The walls of the main room’s interior are made of deep rich wood. The vaulted ceiling hangs close to the bartender’s head. One decoration leftover from St. Patrick’s Day dangles from the mantel of the well-stocked backlit bar: everybody’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. Brenda spots an empty booth and waves me over as she beetles towards it.
At one o’clock in the afternoon, the bar is full. If they had a beer at lunch, members of the D.C. political machine have long since scuttled back to their air-conditioned offices. Instead, the bar is full of men standing in clusters and smoking Marlboro Reds, men like the ones hovering at the front door. Some have scraggly beards while others are clean-shaven and sport pierced ears. One man, his face hidden under the shadow of his MIA/POW baseball cap, do shots of whiskey alone. When he raises his head, I realize the man is one of the men we met at the entrance.
“Brenda. Look around. Many of the men in this bar are wearing the same t-shirt that the man, Leighton, was wearing. I think these guys are Vietnam vets. Maybe something is going on today at the Vietnam Memorial.”
Brenda nods. A waitress comes over to our table. Brenda and I decided to split a burger and onion rings. We order two beers. When the waitress returns, she sets down two frosted mugs and two Heinekens, telling us that our food will be ready shortly. Brenda carves the burger down the middle of the plump bun with her knife when our food arrives. “I think we should go down to the Mall and see what’s going on there. Maybe we should even stay if there are fireworks. Oh, shit. Two o’clock at the bar. That guy at the door who wanted to buy us beer is coming our way.”
Leighton appears at the edge of our table with a Heinekin in each hand. The smirk on his face grows as he pretends to be something like a butler and begins topping up our beer glasses.
“Afternoon again, ladies. I hope you are enjoying this fine weather that our nation’s Capitol is providing us this holiday. My name is Leighton, and I will be your bartender for the rest of the afternoon. May I sit down for a moment?” Leighton squeezes into the booth next to Brenda before waiting for a response. He does not see Brenda rolling her eyes. I respond with silence, pushing my now full beer glass away and raising the nearly empty beer bottle to my lips. Leighton winks.
“Look, we are not interested in anything you have on offer. Why don’t you shove off and leave my friend and me alone!” Brenda raises her eyebrow and quickly starts to rearrange the glasses on the table.
“Now, is that any way to treat your butler? Today is a day to celebrate—the birth of our country and all that. Come over here, Richard, you too, Sonny, come over and meet these nice young girls,” Leighton motions to his friends at the bar.
“I would think that there is not a lot for you to celebrate after being shipped off to Vietnam,” I snort without regret.
Brenda raises her eyebrow again at me, a little higher this time, as if to say, you better tone it down a bit. “I’m Brenda. You are sitting next to my roommate, Anna,” Brenda chirps, attempting to gloss over the tension that I created.
“Finally, an introduction,” Leighton exclaims, thrusting his muscular arm over the table. “Let’s make some more room for everyone. Sonny, you squeeze in next to Brenda. You’re both little. You too, Richard, there should be room for you. I’ll sit next to you, Anna, if you don’t mind,” I flash Brenda a ‘is this ok with you’ look, and she nods and shrugs her shoulders.
A couple of hours of conversation melt into the heat of the holiday. Richard has found a willing audience member in Brenda for his comedy routine. With each joke or story he tells, witty or uninspired, she bursts out in unrestrained laughter. Leighton and I trade mild-tempered insults with each other. John stares into his beer glass. Sonny’s gaze feels like it is burning a hole into my shoulder.
Soon, Leighton starts talking about his war. I do not tell him that I want to know everything about the war – the smells, the images, the physical feeling of an adrenaline charge that men like him experience when faced with their imminent demise. I want to understand the marks on bodies and psyches alike that war leaves behind.
“I am a deserter. I deserted the war,” Sonny suddenly announces, dialing up the intensity of the uncomfortable gaze.
“Sonny, no, you are not! Quit lying. Have another beer.” Leighton shifts uncomfortably in his seat and tries to regain my attention. Brenda and I glance uneasily at each other. Our morning, which began as a fit of pique, has quickly degenerated into an afternoon of questionable decisions.
“I can’t tell you stories about singed flesh or arms lying without bodies in the mud, bodies where the only recognizable part is the powder-burned fatigues, but I can tell you the truth if you can stand it. I am a deserter,” Sonny slams his empty beer glass on the table without losing his stride.
“Sonny, stop. Come on, man. Why go down that road,” Leighton leans forward into Sonny’s face but is met with his trademark smile. “Just stop all that, Sonny!”
“O.k.” Sonny looks down into his beer for a few minutes then raises his head in a bright, devastating smile. “I’m Sonny, and I’m sunny!” he shouts, causing a few heads at the bar to turn towards our table.
“O.k. Sonny. Yes, you are sunny, Sonny. Do you want me to get you another beer,” Leighton asks nervously, beginning to raise his arm to motion the waitress over.
“I just wanted to tell a story, Leighton,” he says, his voice shaking and rising. “I wanted to tell HER this story. Do you know why,” Sonny asks, pounding on the table until the bar pauses? Abruptly, the men leaning against the bar stop talking in mid-sentence. The waitress quietly busies herself with wiping a clean table next to us, her ears cocked.
“It’s o.k. Sonny. You don’t have to do this, buddy. Just sit back and relax.” Leighton’s voice is even. He looks directly at Sonny and reaches out to slap him on the shoulder. “It’s o.k., man. Just hold on. We’ll go to The Wall later, and everything will be better, o.k.?
“Dammit. I am going to tell my story. I want to tell HER my story because when I look at her face, I see war. She understands it. I can see it in her eyes,” he whimpers, staring across the table at me. “Anna understands what she sees because I see it in her face,” Sonny whispers before pushing past Richard and Brenda, disappearing down the length of the bar towards the bathroom.
“What the hell was that all about? What happened to him over there?” Brenda’s voice is insistent and fierce on my behalf. I am grateful, but for the first time this afternoon, I am frightened. Frightened of the situation, Brenda and I have found ourselves in or frightened of Sonny’s pathos that is my own. I am not sure.
“First of all, Sonny is not a deserter,” Leighton, the man, once full of his own bravado whispers, his shoulders slumped forward in resignation. “Maybe this visit to D.C. wasn’t such a good idea, after all, Richard.” Richard nods his head thoughtfully and looks towards the door. Sonny is standing at the end of the bar doing shots.
“What the hell does Sonny mean?” The pit in my stomach sinks a little lower, knowing that my question is one I may regret asking.
“Well, I don’t know if Sonny was going to tell you about why he left Vietnam, but Sonny is not a deserter,” Leighton leans back against the booth before bringing the last of his beer to his lips before continuing. “Sonny’s father did not want him to go to Vietnam, but he was drafted. We were all drafted. His father wanted him to stay in school. Sonny refused. Said that if his friends were going, he had to go. When the fighting got really bad over there, Sonny’s father decided that he had to get Sonny out of the jungle one way or another. He figured Sonny deserved a discharge that would not mar his record. Sonny came home to take care of his mother because of a family emergency…,” Leighton pauses, his sentence drifting. “Do either of you want something to drink. Scotch? Brandy? Another beer,” Leighton asks, desperate to change the subject.
“What was a family emergency? You need to tell us, Leighton.” Brenda’s face tightens, and her voice is unsteady.
Leighton exhales hard. “Sonny’s father committed suicide by slicing his wrists open so that his son could come home. Sonny carries a lifetime of guilt over his father’s decision. Look, if Sonny comes back to the table, let’s try and be bright and laugh again. He forgets things sometimes, especially when he has too much to drink like he seems to be doing this afternoon.”
Leighton gets up and begins to collect the beer glasses on the table. “I have known Sonny for twenty years. He never talks about his father. He must have seen something in you, Anna,” Leighton shakes his head turning towards me, “something that he thought he could trust because you haven’t been anywhere near any war as far as I know.”
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_5dfff59dfa0c4dc1a1775b39ae3fd83d7Emv2.jpeg163210Anna Sochockyhttp://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 14:53:412020-10-27 16:57:10When eyes of war meet
I had loved art as a child. Swirling my paintbrush in red and white, watching the bristles turn to pink delighted me. There were pallets of carefully measured primary colors, rationed to avoid the excesses children adore, margarine containers of muddied water, too clouded to rinse the color from the old brushes, two-foot-high easels with pieces of masking tape in the corner imprinted with each child’s name, and denim smocks riddled with dried paint.
The morning I stood before my easel with my pallet in hand feels like yesterday. Autumn leaves of red, orange, and yellow sprinkled my construction paper, spinning in gales of a silent wind. I had an active imagination and could hear the leaves chattering in the breeze. I believed the leaves, like the birds, sensed winter approaching. I would paint my picture and preserve the leaves until spring.
I did not hear Mrs. Johnson hesitate behind me until I felt her fingernails grazed my neck as she snatched my hair and pulled my head back. Her voice shook with rage as she hissed in my ear, “You are painting the wrong way! You will ruin the brush!’
My voice stammered as I tried to explain why some of the leaves needed stems. Mrs. Johnson responded by seizing more strands of my short hair. My eyes swelled with hot tears. I knew if Mrs. Johnson saw my disobedience, she would pull harder. She growled in my ear once more, “Anna! You are painting wrong! You are not supposed to hold your brush that way! Stop painting upwards,” before wrenching the brush from my quaking fingers, reinserting it between my thumb and forefinger, and squeezing my little hand until my fingertips throbbed.
Head down, I watched my tears evaporate into the paint fragments of my smock and could feel the stares of my classmates on my back. That day, art became a mystery, secrets others knew but refused to share with me. When once I had seen the music of colors, shapes, and brushstrokes, I saw only an ugly, wretched piece of yellowed construction paper. In those few brief, devastating moments, art lost its innocence. The belief that I should never try to paint or draw or write stories again without risking the wrath of others is rooted firmly in my consciousness.
Over the years, half-heartedly, I raged against the memory of childhood betrayal by landing parts in school plays and memorizing literary pieces for oral interpretation contests in high school, but mostly I capitulated. For a study away semester in college, I had desperately wanted to go to Florence to study Michelangelo and Botticelli, lose myself in the maze of Renaissance architecture, and sip red wine as the sun cast a burnt orange glow over the cobblestone streets.
Instead, I went to Chicago to study urban politics. Partly due to the money I knew my mother did not have but mostly a result of not having the temerity to resist my childhood wound, the prospect of traveling to Italy disintegrated.
Art continued to be both a mystery and curiosity. Occasionally flirting with a class or entering a museum, I stared at paintings and sculptures from a place of ignorance and shame. Art history stymied me with its complexity and breadth of history. I lacked the language to interpret what I saw and felt in contemporary or modern galleries.
Art intimidated me. That is until I discovered William Blake.
With anger and passion, outrageous Biblical storylines, the radical artist pulled me into his web of madness. In graduate school, the passions for art and mystery, myth, and story returned and took hold of my heart. As part of the semester, I studied Blake with reverence and astonishment, I wrote a serious of fictitious letters to my rebel hero, and with the guidance of a kindred spirit, I found my voice on the page.
The following is one of the last letters in the series I wrote when our relationship had bridged the gap of time, and I learned my resistance to the hunger of the soul was futile.
My dearest William,
Last night, my fingers entwined in yours, you led me to the edge of an endless pool of red-hot fire. Molten rocks exploding, surging rivers glowing with their own consumption. In awe, I watched you reach into the fires of imagination. Spoonfuls of flames cupped between your fingers bloomed like lotus flowers with petals of sapphire, emerald, and gold. Terrified your hands would burn, I wept into your palms until the flames vanished. I held your hands to my cheek to soothe the blisters, my eyes would surely see, but when I turned your palms over in my own, your hands had healed.
Again, you reached into the fire to gather a bouquet of imagination’s fury alighting tree limbs and stones, books of poetry, and lost photographs. Beneath heaven’s starry blanket, I leaped to extinguish the flames with my breath. I stamped my feet mercilessly until my bare soles bled. I searched in vain for waters to control the unruly blaze. I begged you to harness the fires, fearful of their roaring heights. Your eyes twinkled with a hint of madness. Your gaze pierced through my own skin, boring a bloodless hole into my trembling heart. I wept again, begging you to discipline the frenzy until I sank to my knees, convinced my own horrible, fiery death was at hand.
It was then you knelt beside me, your hands on my face, wiping the tears of dread from my eyes. In a voice as gentle as a man in love, you said to me, “Why do you resist that which you know you cannot,” holding my eyes to yours until I surrendered to the flames of my own imagination and desire.
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Deep inside the bowels of the Imperial War Museum, I stand with a group of tourists and British nationals waiting to enter a simulated bomb shelter. Once inside, the guide instructs the assembled group to sit along with the wooden seats along the far walls. Grade school children on summer holiday giggle and poke at each other before their parents issue admonishments. A sliver of light from the guide’s dimmed torch pans the room before the door closes, leaving a giddy hush and pitch-black darkness behind.
Before I came to England, my mother’s friends, Pam and Derrick, excited by the prospect of my return and curious about my writing, gathered articles and books, photographs and newspaper cuttings about the war for me. One day, a package with a half-dozen photographs of an old bomb shelter that the previous tenants had constructed in their house’s back garden during the war arrived. Along with the photos, Derrick had painstakingly sketched two drawings of the shelter’s interior in pencil.
If you are interested, Pam had written, there is a virtual Blitz experience at the Imperial War Museum in London. And now, without warning, the simulated air raid siren of the Blitz experience Pam referenced in her letter shrieks. Exaggerated voices of a fictitious family penetrate the whining signal warning of imminent bombs. The mother’s voice’s veracity reminds me of a character on the television program, Eastenders – sharp, nasal, and perpetually angst-ridden.
Dishes clatter. Ration cans tip over and roll across the floor. The mother argues with the children’s grandmother. An unseen baby howls inconsolably. The siren’s wail climbs steadily, drowning the conversation. The thin walls start to shake.
During the war, my mother slept in a steel-plated Morrison bomb shelter like this museum reproduction in her family house’s front hall. At night, during the air raid warnings, my grandmother carried my sleeping mother down the stairs to the prefabricated shelter. Knowing nothing of bombs and war, my mother slept gently tucked inside metal walls. Pushed against the wooden staircase, the wire mesh sides and the roof, a plate made of heavy steel, ideally shielded anyone inside from caving beams and bricks if the house sustained a direct hit. Inside, a steel-enforced mattress accommodated two adults and two children. The front side slid vertically, and when the air raid siren bellowed, my mother and her family climbed inside to wait for the All Clear siren to howl.
Though it was cramped and overheated, the shelter was stocked with food, handbags, ration coupons, gas masks, a flashlight, and books. In the daylight, like Pam and Derrick’s predilection for disguise, my grandmother covered the wire mesh with a tablecloth and planted a vase of roses in its center. The pressure of this life lived through never registered in my young mind as a child. However, I tried to imagine what being inside a shelter must have been like, listening to the planes swooping over the rooftops, the rapid-fire of artillery, and the piercing sound of warning sirens.
Prepared for the first ‘bomb,’ I wait to step back into my mother’s life. The walls of the museum shelter tremble like a Disneyland ride. I am as yet, unconvinced by the simulation. The Eastenders’ voices ring hollow. The muffled outbursts climb in intensity until the war outside unleashes torrents of earsplitting blasts. Parents beside me quiet their children and whisper, “It’s not real, love.” After a particularly potent explosion, I lurch forward, convinced the shelter walls would implode, leaving all of us exposed. Even the Eastender characters have grown quiet. I cannot see my hands gripping the edge of the seat, but I know my knuckles are white.
The line between history and the present evaporates.
My mind races. How will the coupons last the month? Will this shelter be enough to keep my family safe? I know the questions I ask myself are manufactured, yet I will focus on the answers. Is this how legacy is transferred from parent to child? Gradually, the bomber planes dissipate, the time around explosions lengthens, and the shelter walls stiffen.
When I emerge into the bright lights of the museum, I am shaking.
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I am eight years old. After my mother and I arrive at Heathrow Airport, an announcement boom through the loudspeakers over the baggage claim carousels instructing people to move towards the nearest exits as quickly as possible. There has been a bomb threat in the Departures Terminal, and swarms of people spill over into the Arrivals terminal. Maneuvering a cart of our luggage, my mother grips my hand tightly, so tightly, I cry out in a fog of jet lag, jostled and pushed by the controlled panic.
“Anna. Please do not argue, darling. We have to do what the Bobbies say. Just keep hold of my hand and don’t let go,” my mother says firmly, awkwardly steering the cart through a maze of travelers.
From behind the concrete pillars, police officers with enormous German Shepherds materialize and begin to scour the area that is quickly disintegrating into chaos. A woman dressed in a brightly colored sari, her ample belly peaking from beneath the fabric, talks animatedly to her husband, who struggles to steer their own luggage cart stacked high with cases. A frantic Japanese businessman in a crisp pinstriped suit brushes past me. Still, he is quickly intercepted by a police officer and turned in the opposite direction—an elderly couple dressed in dark, wool clothing trudge beside us with their nearly empty cart.
When the woman comes close, the smell of fried onions and sweat lingers a little too long, and I turn my head towards my mother’s suede-covered arm. The two strangers speak in broken English that sounds like my father when he phones his Ukrainian friends in Canada to talk about medicine, land, and beekeeping before his words collapse into a riddle of a language I cannot decipher.
Near the Arrivals hall entrance, dozens of people hold placards with names written in thick black marker. These strangers hover, looking expectantly into the faces of travelers streaming towards the exits. An older man dressed in a tweed suit dabs his eyes intermittently with his handkerchief and waves a piece of cardboard with a girl’s name. “I am waiting for my granddaughter, but she has not come through Arrivals yet,” he tells the police officer in an agitated voice. “She is only eleven years old, her mother has died in a car crash, and I am her only family left. She is coming from America. I have to meet her,” the man whimpers.
I watch the police officer calmly turn the man around by his shoulders and tell him in a firm but a kind voice that he is sure that his granddaughter will be all right. I cannot look away from the consuming sadness on this man’s face and keep him in my sight until he too melts into a sea of people.
The voice echoing through the loudspeakers, more insistent and agitated than the first time, instructs us again to move as quickly as possible towards the exit doors. The automatic doors fly open as our cart hits the plastic mat, and my mother and I are cast into a throng of people and the blinding sunlight. No one is meeting us at the airport.
Though a suspicious package will later be located in the Heathrow complex, an explosive is not found. Seventeen days after our arrival, however, a bomb planted by members of the I.R.A. will cause extensive damage in the Houses of Parliament and injure eleven people. Another bomb blast with the I.R.A. imprint but not an admission of responsibility will kill one person and injure forty-one others at the Tower of London, days after my family’s visit to this historic site.
Once on the Tube into central London, I sink into plush plaid cushioned seats. Before we arrive in Bury St. Edmunds, my mother and I will ride two additional trains intersecting across southeast England. At Liverpool Street, my mother guides us deftly through the hordes of commuters and tourists to one of the trains parked at the end of the track. The white letters declare their destination on the front panel: Cambridge. A red-faced man, dressed head to toe in a navy blue uniform, his gold buttons glistening in the artificial light, heaves our bags onto the waiting train. I follow my mother, my hand still clasped in hers, down the narrow passageway as she glances in each compartment, hoping to find one vacant.
“Here’s an empty one, Anna. We’ll sit here.” With a sigh, I collapse into the hounds-tooth covered seat opposite my mother. I am so tired. “You may have to move if another person comes in this compartment,” my mother says wearily, sliding the glass door shut, turning to stack our bags on the metal rack above us.
“I know,” I whine. “I just want to sit here, o.k.? I like sitting backward. Sitting in the other direction makes me feel sick.” Besides, I want to see where I have come from. I mumble as the train trundles out of the station.
Years before England became two worlds, one steeped in history and tradition, and one obsessed with all things contemporary, I walked through this layered history of familiar streets, historical streets that mapped the skeleton of my genetic code, my authentic self. This world was the world I was born into on an early April morning, a world where generations of women moved quietly around me like the earth revolving gently around the sun.
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There was a prairie in your past. The glow of a dashboard in an old Buick, the ping, ping of gravel jumping under tire rims. There were bonfires and kegs and midnight visits to the horses, their bodies, a black stain against the midnight. There were back seats with fumbling hands, Elton John, coarse dry wind, and the sound of 4-wheelers filling your head. With the smell of stinkweed and lilac, in your past, you threw hay bales over your shoulder with your pitchfork, scraping mud off your boots with a stick. There was a low creek and the redbreast of a pheasant leaping from the brittle corn, jeans ripped from barbed wire, the smell of hot coffee, and polished leather.
But you left the prairie.
Later, when your heart stumbled, you heard a faint voice in your head – go to the prairie. Get in your car and drive until you can taste pine and black earth on your lips. You listened for once and drove west on the single interstate. There were train cars stacked with black coal and a gray sky pressing down on wheat fields. There was a green tractor winding backward and forwards across the earth. A truck followed behind, its mouth open and ready like a baby bird, ready for the harvested grain that fell like water into its steel beak.
Slowly, the smell of pine and lilac came back to you, first like a terrible stench, but later like the strange scent of salvation. You learned to scrape your boots again and heave hay bales. You tried concentrating on the smell of hot coffee at dawn and polished the saddles with a terrible urgency until one day when your boots were so worn, any other pair of shoes made your feet ache, the smell of stinkweed made you weep. Remember these details: the sound of your boots on crushed gravel, the last humming of crickets before daybreak, and the aching chill moving through your denim jacket before the heat sets in for the day.
The morning of your last ride, the one you still hold onto like a precious photograph, Billy told you what he knew: “When you came here, you were sick. I don’t know what made you sick, but you were sick. The lies we tell ourselves never fill the holes inside us. I think you will be alright, but be gentle with your heart.
Deep in the months of a prairie winter, you still remember how Billy believed in your own redemption long before you did, a redemption only the prairie of your past could offer.
(the old cowboy finds it uncomfortable to sit in a chair)
and when he walks, his limbs form an exquisite denim wishbone.
On horseback, he has built his house a thousand times over – in the valley, on the mesa,
cast out in the middle of desert sand – he is marooned among stretches of pinion pine
in the elbow of a river. Octopus arms and crimson floral hands bend in the wind
before storm clouds gather. His horse’s pointed hooves follow charcoal steers,
their bodies, enormous stains, form dust tornados across acres of cracked golden wheat
across tree branches the color of burnt bone. A silver and icy blue bird’s tail unfolds
on the red rock like a Victorian fan. Under a desert moon, he counts the stars
balanced between Greek constellations and the long shadow of his life.
he is lost, lost in a sweet fantasy of gentleness.
(heaven is different for everyone)
perhaps a pinch of the desert, a cup of sea, or a quart of pine leads to salvation
in the end. Do sanctuaries only complicate a person’s relationship with God?
And what of men once raising their spires from stony rubbles on the backs of myth
knowing many would never see the climax of marble and mortar. These men suffered.
In the desert moonlight and across an ocean, others came upon their cathedrals on dangerous peaks
with turrets like elephants’ toes. Weather built these sanctuaries closer to the sun until the priests came,
shouting sermons from unfinished mounts of stone. The wind swallowed their faith,
their holy words falling on deaf ears of reluctant souls. And when rainy fingers tumble,
does Moses still part red rock, each shard split apart deep beneath a counterfeit sea?
(buried in my glass heart)
and alone on a carpet of dunes by the ocean, I awoke baptized. Shivering from weariness, the apricot streaks of dawn cast shadows
along the tanned ridges of my feet. I waited for the tide to rise. On the edge of a desert sea, it is not the relief of rock beneath my feet
but the crown of the incline and the distance between the ridge and the car that lengthened like a swollen river. When I climb out
of the canyon, my stiff, strong limbs step first one foot, then the other, like a rider without a horse.
I move across the shadow of bronze earth, knowing that I have lived too long without intention.
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