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
Awoken with a start from a restless sleep, I grope not for my watch or the battery-operated alarm clock. I do not reach for my smudged glasses, either, but instead, fumble for the switch on the floor to turn on the Christmas tree lights. The miniature lights twinkle. The early, frigid darkness sparkles like counterfeit jewels. Tears dry then moisten as another surge of recognition consumes me.
My mother is going to die.
Save the three days I slept in the ICU waiting room still dressed in the suit I wore when the call from the emergency room about my mother’s hemorrhagic stroke came, this sofa has been my bed. Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room. I stack the pillows on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, piling worn blankets and duvets and stray clothing on the lumpy mattress.
I read by the light of Christmas tree lights. The lights glow day and night, trying to stave off a sense of impending doom boiling in the pit of my empty stomach. Against the winter darkness, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot drift off, even if it’s only for a single hour or two.
Drained of sleep and faith, I drift to the living room window and tentatively reach out to touch the frozen glass. Last night, the wind blew in from the north, squealing and moaning, creaking and wailing like me. Snow tendrils creep across the roads. The slender cobwebs braid an icy lair. More than a foot of fresh snow has fallen in the night. My mother’s apartment building has lived for over thirty years is incarcerated in an ice prison. The sky, still pregnant with winter, belies the tempered blizzard, which will likely rage on for a few more hours.
Though a snowplow breaks the path of winter, pushing back the night and the snow’s accumulation, I still wonder if it will be possible to drive to the hospital once the anemic sun rises.
I wander into the galley kitchen. Turn on the electric kettle. Toss a tea bag in a mug. Collect the cream a few days past its expiration date from the refrigerator. Wait. When the pot boils, I pour the water into the cup, watching the teabag bleed ginger brown against the white bone china. Absently, I press and push against the pouch urging it to steep a little faster—lists cascade across my mind.
Setting the steaming mug on the dining room table, I push back the week’s mail: bills that need to be paid, Letters to be answered. Christmas cards have arrived from people who are oblivious to my mother’s condition. Pulling my ‘master’ list of To-Dos, I grasp a pen and start adding tasks to a clean page. Visit the bank manager. Make an appointment with the investment administrator. Buy multiple expandable files and a label maker. Return a page worth of phone calls. Buy more international phone cards.
Day Nine: another day of shuttling between my mother’s bedside and hunting down elusive doctors in the maze of hospital hallways. Another day of waiting for updates about my mother’s condition that are few and far between. Her medical situation is not improving, nor is it markedly shifting into the positive column either. Though the bleed in her head shows a mild retraction, its absorption into her brain matter has stalled.
I am lost in the perfunctory world of list-making when the phone rings. I glance at the mantel clock on the piano – 6:20 a.m. The shrill ring of the telephone at this time of the day does not unnerve me. The phone rings until after midnight most evenings with daily calls from or to England or Australia, often commencing by 5:30 a.m. I am juggling four time zones leaving me stretched like a taut drum around the world’s circumference. I pick up the telephone receiver and mumble a distracted hello.
“Is this Anna So Coc E?” The voice is unfamiliar. When I do not answer immediately, the hesitant voice repeats the question—my mind’s roll-a-dex grinds. No accent.
“Yes. I am Anna Sochocky,” I respond, crisply refusing to allow a tone of gloom seep into my voice. Still, my hands begin to shake like a person struck down by tremors. I put the pen down and wait.
“Ms. So Coc E. This is a member of the nursing staff on your mother’s ward. Your mother went into respiratory arrest at six a.m. We have been executing chest compressions for twenty minutes, but your mother is unresponsive. Would you like us to continue with chest compressions and intubate her,” the anonymous nurse’s question hangs by a thread in the silence? The nurse persists. “Did you sign a hospital medical directive? Does your mother have a resuscitation order,” the nurses fire off companion questions.
My mother is dying. My mother is dead. For a few seconds, I cannot speak, do not speak. I stare out the window into the black morning. The wind grows fierce. The invisible squall’s direction changes and tosses the snow into somersaults. I have grieved for nine days. From the moment I walked into the ICU unit, I knew that my mother was gone. Why does death always arrive in the darkest part of the night or early morning? I gaze into the blizzard wind.
My mother is dying. My mother is dead.
I return to the present with a vengeance. “I gave you copies of the medical power of attorney stating that my mother did not want extraordinary measures taken. I signed the medical directive that you gave me three days ago, specifically not to do any chest compressions or intubation. Don’t you have these instructions noted on her chart or in a file somewhere?”
I march around the tiny living room, desperate to be focused through the rapid onset of tears, tripping over the corner legs of the unmade sofa bed, looking for my clothes, my shoes, my watch, my heart.
“Stop compressions now. DO NOT intubate my mother. Mom wouldn’t want any of this! You’ve probably broken her ribs pounding on her chest! Stop breaking her! I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can be.”
“Ok. We will stop all resuscitative efforts,” confirming my answer. I am sorry,” the nurse adds before the receiver tone clicks in my ear.
Half-dressed and stunned, I dial Janet’s number. When she answers, I cannot speak. I cannot breathe. I must breathe.
“What’s happened,” Janet whispers.
“She’s gone, Janet. Mom is gone.” Leaping to my feet and weaving around the bed, the chairs, the loss, I race to the kitchen sink and try to spit, expecting to find acidic bile in the basin. My stomach is empty. I emit dry heaves, instead. I nod mutely into the phone, listening to panicked noises on the other end of the line. A chair’s legs scrape across the floor. Boots are selected and quickly discarded. Affronted grunts from Janet’s two dogs register their displeasure with being disturbed in the pre-dawn dark.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can. It will take me a few minutes to warm up the truck, and it’s snowing hard again, but I’ll be there as soon as I can. I am so sorry. We’ll get through this together, ok,” but Janet’s weak declaration dissolves amidst choking sobs on both ends of the line.
With nothing left to say, I hang up the phone and aimlessly begin to throw the pillows off the sofa bed and fold blankets. Halfway through pushing the mattress into the hidden compartment, the frame refuses to collapse. The sofa bed is stuck. I am stuck, too.
Do I get on the phone or finish getting dressed? I crumble to the carpet and lean against the bent steel frame. Who do I call next? My husband, of course, but should I call the funeral home before we get to the hospital? Will anyone even answer the phone at this time of day? Should I post a notice on the website that I have been using to update people about Mom’s condition?
The tree lights fuse. The ornaments bleed color into a watery pool. I cannot breathe. I must breathe. Struggling to my feet, I shove the bed violently into place and reconstruct the sofa, cramming pillows onto the frame and fluffing the accent ones into place. The phone rings a second time.
Believing it is Janet to tell me her truck has skidded into a snowdrift, I answer the phone with a question – are you stuck? The person on the other end of the line is not Janet, but the hospital again tells me that one of the nurses found my mother’s pulse. Sign of life is thready, but there is a pulse.
My mother is being transported to the ICU. How can this be? Is she alive after all? My mother’s still alive.
I hang up the phone and toss the receiver onto the sofa. Wriggling into another sweater, I am zipping up my boots when the phone rings a third time. Once again, an anonymous nurse asks me to confirm my name and follows with an apology. “We are sorry, but we were mistaken. Your mother does not have a pulse. Time of death six-thirty.”
By now, any tears of mine have evaporated. Dulled and confused by the hospital’s conflicting messages, I scream without a hint of grace into the phone receiver. “What the hell are you people doing? You violate my mother’s wishes and ignore or cannot FIND the directive I signed, the PDA you asked me to bring to the hospital. She’s dead. She’s alive. Now she’s dead. Are you sure this time, or do you want to check again? Leave my mother alone, for Christ’s sake. You have done more than enough.”
Racing on the edge of madness, I slam the receiver down on its cradle.
After nine days of ambiguity, my mother is dead, and I have moved up a generation.
https://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/64b591_31847b9f0c8d4f85a2d6d42dff84af89mv2.jpg217290Anna Sochockyhttp://www.annasochocky.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Anna-Sochocky-Logo.pngAnna Sochocky2020-02-14 15:27:272020-10-28 17:34:01Time of death: six thirty a.m.
On autumn days, when I drive across the prairie alone, my father’s country, Ukraine, appears in my rearview mirror. The country’s outline does not emerge near the anniversary of my father’s death. He died on the last day of June. The silhouette is disconnected from his birth under an Aquarius sun during the darkest part of winter, too. Rather, the faint, porous Ukrainian borders materialize long after the sun begins to wither when the blue sky is so crisp that my teeth ache. Only when the corn stalks have disappeared under the plow, and the air is motionless do I detect this foreign vista behind me.
I have come to expect this annual visitation.
The film stills of Ukraine rolling behind me are not part of this century. I do not see the effects of Chernobyl on the polluted land or drink the poisoned water. I cannot picture the pinched faces of young girls with little to believe in but familiar strains of pop music and their boyfriends’ hands between their thighs. The empty grocery store shelves and the derelict buildings of a once-grand and fortuitous country do not cross my view.
I see my father’s Ukraine, instead.
In the mirror, I see a land where men once guided themselves across quiet, wheat oceans by starlight like mariners. Bison and antelope, wild horses, and prairie hawks still innocently roam across this bruised land. My ancestors’ bones are buried in this black earth too, buried deep within a prairie my father once walked across with faith before the war came.
The sharp smell of wood smoke filtering through my cracked car window reassigns me to a distant century. I see Baroque churches with Greek domes and mosaic Virgins pieced together from crimson, turquoise, and emerald fragments. Ox-drawn carts stumble across muddy roads leading into dark forests. I see braided kolach bread wreathed in candles on Christmas Eve and brightly colored Easter eggs in April. I see my father on the back of a horse, his boots dug deep in the stirrups, or is it I dressed in the pale green sweater and t-shirt, my cold hands gripping worn leather reins, my cheeks pink like a pair of apples, who I see?
Behind me, there are wandering minstrels carrying banduras. I see a poet, who was once a serf, argue angrily with Fate as the train carries him into a frozen exile, pencil, and paper ripped from his hands. I sit at a wooden table next to an uncle with the taste of resistance and borscht on his chapped lips in my horizontal moving picture. My father is at the table too, arguing with his brother – the dissident – arguing tearfully against the path of hunger and violence Fate will lay down for both of them. I see great famine and peasants scorching their own houses, burning the last sheaths of grain before the day’s arrests begin. These truths, like his cold, sepia-toned landscape, darken the history of my father’s Ukraine.
I have never traveled to my father’s country.
I have not seen how the beech trees cling together in dense forests or how the linden, oak, and pine branches knot in a web above the swamps and meadows. On the streets of Kyiv, my Eastern European features have not dissolved into faces with an architecture that has not changed for centuries, ones that belong to lives steeped in cheap Vodka, blunt cigarettes, and unrelenting poverty. Sitting on the docks in Odessa sipping Turkish coffee and smoking in the chilly morning air has not been part of my life. Nor have I stood with my father by the Black Sea mesmerized by the oceangoing freighters crushed together like downtown office buildings.
Would I even feel a connection to Ukraine if I knew where my father stood in the photograph I have of him, amidst bare trees, smiling? Would I understand what he saw as we stood together on the first land he owned after the war when all I wanted was for the mosquitoes to quit feasting on my plump ten-year-old body? It made no difference to my father that the land was part of the Canadian prairie. This land was saturated with his memory and the typography of the Ukrainian steppe. Land loved. Land labored. Land lost. The spiritual and historical life of an entire nation revolves around Ukrainians’ intimate relationship with the earth.
For my father, Ukraine was a land driven by memory; for me, it is driven by history.
I am half Ukrainian because my father was Ukrainian, because of the spelling of my last name, yet, I do not know what this means, what it meant to him. His blood, the same blood flowing in my veins, gallops through the arteries of men and women who still live on this fractured landscape. The false borders of politics may have crumbled, but history continues to keep me apart from my Ukrainian family born after the war, the family I will never meet. Ocean. Land. Politics. Much more than geography and the deep separate us from each other now.
War. History. Language. Revolution. Disintegration. More revolution. How would I find my family? Would I only exact unhappiness and confusion on the survivors, walking up the path like the prodigal daughter returning, the unwelcome ghost of my father and my uncle, murdered by the Nazis long ago, carved into my cheekbones? Stones unturned, souls at rest, perhaps.
Was I wrong to believe that my father’s silence about Ukraine, a silence he kept like an ancient tradition, was a punishment I deserved? Maybe I did not understand that he stayed quiet because he knew his words would never be enough to describe his torment over losing his family, his country, his heart to war. I did not consider that words would always be lacking; his sentences withering like autumn leaves. Perhaps history inevitably starts to fade on the page when a book gathers dust, unread. Maybe I believed in his silence more than I believed in his death.
Still, there is something intrinsically familiar about this country that stubbornly appears to me each autumn. I, too, am driven to argue against the circle of Fate that others try to lay down for me. I hang on to the things I cannot hold in my red, red heart and live as my father did, always in motion. This restlessness is not simply the legacy my father bequeathed to me. The urge to roam was implanted in Ukrainian blood rushing through their veins centuries ago.
This is my inheritance: Ukrainians’ souls have been sad for centuries, and now this loneliness is mine to manage—this hunger.
When I go to Ukraine, I will see an independent country and listen to the echoes of revolution in the streets. I will go to bear witness to the sights and sounds, smells, and touch of my father’s landscape and feed the uneducated part of my soul. I will go for my father because he could never return home without risking imprisonment or death. I will go to Ukraine one day because the act of remembering is a holy one.
The path from the villages of Ukraine to the American prairie is threadbare. The faint trail follows the line of the northernmost railroads, snaking their way across the edges of North Dakota and the southern border of Canada. My father did not follow this trail weaving a well-worn path of history to Canada, one that Ukrainians coming before him had beaten down with muddy boots and hopeful souls. Instead, he set his life down on another prairie with no history of others like him coming before. A well-educated man and a man of many languages, he could have set his life down in any country, in any landscape, but instead, he found his way back to the topography he once knew.
In death, Ukrainian ancestors reside in the fields, in the orchards, in the forests, and their homeland’s skies. Yet, like thousands of Ukrainians who pulled the roots of their lives from one unforgiving landscape before setting their lives down in another halfway around the world, my father discovered his memory of the prairie after the war. And now, in a part of the world where my father found peace, each autumn, his country that pursues me like a panther telling me it is time to come.
I watch my father’s mind travel across decades, seeing each family member he lost, recreating the barracks and the barbed wire of Camp No. 231, Redgrave Park. A military hospital tucked between the wheat fields of Diss, Norfolk, an English village of unremarkable note, this, the site of his final internment camp before all prisoners-of-war were released after the armistice. This is the first time I remember being with my father in England, joining my mother and me on one of our summer returns. He is both out of place and at home in this landscape.
He is silent, and I am a spectator.
I look at the colony of prefabricated Nissen huts, which remain, trying to imagine my father living in this camp, looking over his shoulder to see if he is being followed to the farm where he and Michael take a farmer’s cabbages to make soup. I cannot picture my father’s face, gaunt from hunger, nor the barricades circling the tents. It is like I am looking at a photograph in a history book, at faceless men, a mystery though it is really my father’s life.
The temporary buildings look like giant mushrooms, the arching, corrugated iron roofs stretch across concrete floors, peeking through acres of wild grass and farmland. The remains of these shelters are the only buildings protruding through the landscape, the medical tents, sleeping quarters, and wire fencing, all long since torn down. These are the only artifacts left.
He stands with arms crossed, rocking back and forth on his heels, nodding, reconciling the still countryside with his memory—the water tower withers beneath choking ivy vines. Only the silent orbit of a wild swan disturbs the horizon of liquid glass. Moonbeams have replaced the searchlights long since extinguished on the lake’s surface. My father turns and looks right through me to the other side of his history.
I am thirteen.
Perhaps, I come from war. War certainly sat beside me at the dinner table as I rearranged my food, listening to my father raging about having nothing to eat but grass soup and stale bread in the camps. War followed me to school when I did not find stories of children like my mother sleeping in air raid shelters, waiting for the silence that comes just before a bomb explodes. I did not see images of war’s unnatural cherry sunsets emblazoned on my history books’ pages. In geography, I learned that Ukraine, my father’s country, was part of the Soviet Union and once called Little Russia, not a country with a soul of its own.
I became obsessed with war. Imagined it. Feared it. I allowed myself to be seduced by stories about it. By its enormity, its uncertainty, by the horrors people like my father and mother witnessed, by the courage of its survivors. War lodged itself in my throat, defined me, chastised me, and tantalized me.
I wondered what it would be like to see war. To confront it, to live through it. Scanning the newspapers for photos of war-torn countries, I searched for the same absence I once knew in my father. I hunted for my mother’s war in the corridors of museums and libraries and in the reedy voices of those who remembered. If I could see war, I could understand my parents. If I could suffer as they did, maybe then I would be worthy of the blessings in my life, and God would not continue to punish me for my innocence. I have not known war the way both of my parents did.
Rather, I carry my innocence about the war like a wound, and it would take a stranger that I once met in a bar to recognize this wound.
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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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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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