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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

An Amazing Evening

My mind has ranged far and wide this past week, across great swaths of time and a skull’s worth of topics…glorious past meals, family, friendships, unrequited love, war, venture capitalism, divorce and…letting go. I suppose some of these random thoughts will eventually coalesce into a few entries. Some will simply disappear into thought limbo only to be reborn again…someday.

Allow me to write about an evening I experienced some thirty years ago. It was a gathering of old friends. In my mind’s eye, this particular dinner, this one incredible evening, set a standard I hope to meet someday myself, surrounded by my closest friends when in our winter years.

The place: Vilnius, Lithuania
The year: 1975
The attendees: My parents’ friends

I must provide a bit of background here. My parents were both actors in the Lithuanian National Theater in the years before the start of World War II. Lithuania had achieved independence in the aftermath of the First World War (after centuries of Polish, then Russian rule). The country was experiencing a renaissance, a mini-“Enlightenment.” My parents were there in the thick of the bubbling artistic pot. They were young, and they were stars. Their circle of intimate friends included playwrights, poets, artists, directors, composers, singers, dancers, musicians and writers. They constituted the nation’s cultural intelligentsia.

Most were fated to die young…and cruelly.

War came. Germany blitzkrieged through the country in its push towards Moscow. People died in the streets. People died for their beliefs. The Jews were eradicated (Vilnius was once known as the “Jerusalem of the North”). No more. The temples were ransacked and destroyed. The actors, playwrights, artists and writers scattered. Most joined the underground resistance. Then it got worse. Much worse. The Russians came. As the Germans retreated, laying waste to everything in their wake, the Russians came like a pack of mad wolves. Stalin mercilessly pounded the small Baltic nations with his iron fists…it was the death knell for a nation and its brightest minds.

As it turned out, my parents escaped (via separate personal odysseys). They subsequently found each other and married, producing two offspring who accompanied them on their exodus. Other family members were not so lucky. Most died in the frigid Siberian wasteland. My parents’ friends, by and large, were killed or enslaved, exiled or forever blacklisted. The suffering was universal, although each suffered in a uniquely personal Hell.

Thirty years later…thirty years gone…my parents set foot again on their native soil (for the last time, it turned out). I was with them.
I was seeing my tortured motherland for the very first time.

I tagged along with my father as he searched for his past companions. Although the Soviet State maintained a tight grip on its people, and these long-lost friends were invariably under constant surveillance, word spreads in mysterious (but highly efficient) ways. Old friends ventured forth from the shadows.

I saw this scene replayed time and again: My father walking slowly down an ancient, narrow street…a man approaches from the other direction. They stop a few feet from each other. Names are uttered, posed as questions. Eyes strain, trying to focus on the face last seen when the visage was young and the eyes bright. Tears flow. “I thought you had died!” “I thought I would never see you again!” They collapse into each other’s arms…sobbing…and rejoicing.

I saw this scene played and replayed many times. I cried every time.

And so it came to pass that these sundry and bedraggled survivors declared they absolutely must meet for dinner. Meet they did.

I was there.
* * *

I don’t remember the food, other than to note it was an eclectic and humble assortment of victuals brought by each to be shared by all. I remember the vodka, the ubiquitous Soviet vodka. I’d say everyone brought a bottle or two. The vodka flowed freely that night. We cavorted in a sea of vodka. The dinner progressed in a drunken cacophony.

I don’t remember the faces. I can’t remember any names. Frankly, I can’t recall many specifics at all. No matter. What I do remember were the laughter, the tears, the fellowship, the brilliance, the passion, the courage, the wit…the blinding magnificence of the indomitable human spirit.

I sat silent, completely wasted, utterly awed. My father would lean towards me and whisper: ...he was the conductor of the Lithuanian symphony; she was a journalist who published the underground newspaper during the war; he was a novelist whose books have been translated into fifteen languages; he was a fellow actor; he is an artist whose paintings can be found in the Louvre and the Hermitage; he was the lead baritone in the opera; she was the National Poet; he was a member of Parliament...I was surrounded by human excellence and my emotions swirled and soared.

They told snippets of their individual stories. Their torture years, their prison years, their exile years. The utterly amazing thing is that they focused on the humorous aspects! Imagine finding the humor in starvation and torture…yet, they did. Laughter rose in gales as they spoke of their tiny triumphs in the face of cruelty and death. To be sure, more than a few tears fell that night. I believe I cried far more than most, but never for long, for there would then come a toast, conveyed with sparkling wit or intense love. There would come an aria sung a cappella and beautifully. There came countless jokes about Stalin and Soviet life. I was regaled with verses of poems, witticisms to rival the best of Bernard Shaw, splashes of spiritual splendor. Dawn arrived before dinner ended. Never, before or since, have I witnessed such magnanimity, such warmth, such courage, such intellect, such grace, such mirth… such blinding magnificence of the human spirit.

It was, truly, an amazing evening.

* * *

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving 2006


For the first time in my life, I spent Thanksgiving alone. Now, I’m not inclined to make this the start of a new tradition, but spending a day alone to ponder all that I am thankful for does have its merits.

I’m a solitary soul by nature and I’m quite comfortable having only myself for company. Thanksgiving, though, was the quintessential family holiday for me, so it was with more than a bit of melancholy that I reflected upon the fact that my family, in essence, no longer exists.

Still, I would be leaving you with a wrong impression if I were to end on that note.

* * *

Thanksgiving, for the last thirty years, was a rather frenetic day. I would typically wake early and rush to begin the final preparations for dinner. There is so much to do…so much to cube, dice, sauté, boil, peel, stir, whisk and puree…while dusting, vacuuming, wiping and fretting during any spare moment. Thanksgiving mornings were always a rush; my mind completely focused on practical matters, recipes and the clock.

Family arrives; dinner is served, consumed, consumed once (twice) more. Merriment and convivial conversations ensue, but soon enough, the tryptophan suffuses into the bloodstream and tongues grow quiet as darkness descends upon this cheery world. Family leaves. Then comes more slicing, wrapping, storing, washing, vacuuming, nibbling, more nibbling (with a bit more wine)…and the inevitable collapse in a state of total satiation and exhaustion. I always loved Thanksgiving…but there was so little time to actually give thanks.

This year was different. I lazed through the morning, savoring my coffee. I caught up on mail, paid a few bills, munched on a bit of leftover chicken, and…gave thanks.

I first began thinking of all that I was grateful for in my life on Monday. The gears in my head then kept turning throughout the week, and my list of thank-you’s kept growing, and growing and growing. By midday today, I realized that it would take a book (perhaps even several tomes) to express ALL the gratitude I feel.

This blog, in many fundamental ways, does not reflect the reality of my life. The musings I’ve shared with you span just a year (more or less); a particularly dark year, I should add. But there have been a great many more unexamined years. In large part, they have been great years, wondrous years, electric/psychedelic years, magnificent years, laughter-filled years, beautiful years, loving years, rewarding and satisfying years.

I spent the day giving thanks. I want to share a few, just a few, of the thoughts that crossed my mind this week.

* * *

I am grateful for all the beauty in this world. It exists everywhere. One has only to open one's eyes and it is there.

I’m grateful for the pious and the penitent. Both have so much to teach, and I have SO much to learn.

I’m grateful for the scientists and the saints. Denizens of two different worlds, we often say, but (really) both worlds are one and the same.

I’m grateful for the kind and gentle true believers, be they followers of crescent, star or cross. Perhaps…if there were more of them…the world could truly be a kinder, gentler place.

I’m grateful for the healers, the peacemakers, the just, the meek, the merciful, the loving, hoping, giving, caring, dreaming…

Imagine a world without them. I believe it would be called: Hell.

I’m grateful for the artists and the artisans, the poets, writers, actors, comics, dramatists, dancers, musicians, nightingales…and countless others who nurture the human soul. To them, I owe the best in me.

I’m grateful for the growers and the grocers; the shepherds and the weavers; fishers and fishmongers; foresters and carpenters; brick-makers and bricklayers; steel-makers and steelworkers; miners and jewelers; and all the seekers and all their fabulous discoveries.

I am grateful for the water that slakes my thirst, nurtures the planet, and crashes against the rocks in liquid poetry. I am grateful for electricity…be it lightning…or the electrons that keep my refrigerator cool. I am grateful for photosynthesis, for the sun that casts its light on the grapes that, in humble gratitude, grow. For the vintners that press the grapes and ferment the fruit in oaken casks that that came from trees that devoured the light and precious air to gird their trunks that sawyers sawed and carvers carved and coopers joined to make the casks where magic happens. I’m grateful for the bottle-makers, the hands that corked the bottles, the mariners who plied the seas to find safe harbors where truckers came to haul the pretty bottles a thousand miles so they might grace my table and make my taste buds sing.

I’m grateful for all living things. The souls that sacrificed their own potential so that I may live. The nuts and seeds that never grew so that I might; the lamb that stretched its neck to Heaven and the blade; the birds that gave up flight so that I may someday fly. I am grateful for all the souls, every one as worthy as my own, that filled my gut that made the blood that fueled my heart and filled my brain that gave me the sense, the wonder and the awe to praise the souls that sacrificed so much. I am grateful…truly, tearfully, grateful for all of this.

(I fear, some days, that I’ve not earned their sacrifice).

I am grateful for my parents who created and nurtured me, all the hands that shaped me, the teachers who taught me, the friends who befriended me, the lovers who loved me, the healers who healed me, the stars that guided me, and the majesty of All Creation that forever inspires me. I am so very grateful for every glimpse of Heaven, every moment of ecstasy, rapture and breathless wonder (and there have been many). I've received SO much more than I deserve…could ever earn…or could ever repay. I am grateful for all of them…for all of this…for all that.

* * *

Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks. If truth be told, it takes more than 24-hours, more than a day, a month or year. It takes a lifetime to give thanks to all whom and all that must be thanked, and praised and worshipped and revered.

* * *

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Son of Commitment-Revisited


You’re probably getting tired of my scribblings about commitment.

Forgive me. It’s just that I forgot to mention something fundamental. Something I never, ever, want to forget myself. Something important enough to warrant an additional post. If you recall, I wrote:

“True commitment is the daily, never-ending, absolute commitment to your partner’s happiness.”

I forgot to mention one thing…(and it’s a critical thing):

Your partner must define what constitutes happiness for them.

I picture those of you wiser than I exclaiming: “Well, DUH!” In hindsight, it seems fairly obvious to me, now, as well (but not at all easy). I didn’t quite get it while I was striving to make my partner happy (and I was trying). You see, I was trying to do all the things
I thought would make my partner happy. Devoting oneself to your partner’s true happiness may entail a good bit of self-denial and sacrifice. It may entail living, doing and loving in ways you had not anticipated, ways you may have never chosen for yourself, if the choice were yours alone to make. Another soul’s happiness may take us to places foreign to our own, perhaps mystical, perhaps completely incomprehensible. And one cannot blithely assume a partner will (or even can) express what constitutes personal happiness clearly and unequivocally. After all, we ourselves often do not recognize our own true needs. We must rely on a constant curiosity, a perpetual state of open wonder regarding our partner’s heart and soul to glean the crumbs that lead to understanding. Loving someone the way they need to be loved may not even be the way we know how to love. If one wishes to live happily ever after, one must learn whatever one must learn.

This commitment to your partner’s happiness is a complicated business, no?

* * *

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Crazy Influence

She’ll forever be
A crazy influence.
Stronger than whiskey,
More potent than drugs,
She’s somehow altered
My very blood.
Nothing’s quite the same
Inside of me.
She’s somehow changed
Reality.
God help me,
She’ll forever be…

A crazy influence.

* * *

I know. I know. It’s pretty lame, as poetry goes. I can’t say I’m all that embarrassed about it, though. I didn’t intend, or try, to write a poem. The words simply fell out of my brain that way.

I was fixated upon the fact that some people, be they family members, friends, teachers or (in this case) a lover, can fundamentally transform us…forever exert a crazy influence. It’s true. I don’t look at life the same way any more. My eyes see the world through her filter. My heart beats differently, somehow.
I swear, my ears don’t even work the way they used to work. She got into my blood and infused herself into every organ, every cell. And my soul? I don’t even recognize it any more. I’m different, now.

She left me in an altered state. And she’ll forever remain a crazy influence.

* * *

Monday, November 13, 2006

What's In A Name?

String together three vowels and two consonants and you have a name. Simple enough. But, there’s SO much more. You also have a nuclear chain-reaction. You have a portal to memories, reveries, dreams and dashed hopes. Depending on the vagaries of any given moment, a chance encounter with a name can feel like a blessing, a slap in the face, a sexual stimulus, a scream, an angel's kiss, a wound, healing balm, sunlight or darkness. Three vowels…two consonants…just a name…and all the emotions found betwixt Heaven and Hell.

* * *

Friday, November 10, 2006

Rainy Evening



Although it is November, a stray warm front (no doubt lost and looking for Florida) somehow made its way into the Windy City. Shortly after sunset, the rains came. In the distance, thunder rumbled.

I sat by my open window and listened to the rain. It made for such sweet music.

My mind grew quiet, mesmerized by the falling, falling, gently falling, soothing pattering rain. Set free at last, my heart took flight. It soared above the rooftops, over bare and yearning trees. It danced across the prairie, embracing bashful clouds along the way in a laughing pas de deux. What joy, this unexpected ballet in the rain! My heart then roamed (as only hearts can do) over countless miles, across the rolling plains. It hovered for a little while above a modest, green-hued home. It paused to pray that peace and happiness had found their way within. And then it soared again; it swooned, it danced and played with prancing raindrops amidst the teasing winds.

At peace for once, my heart came dancing back to me. The rain maintained its serenade.

Here it is…November. And I’m in love with the falling, falling, gently falling, soothing pattering rain.

* * *

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Getting To Know You

By Oscar Hammerstein:

Getting To Know You

[ANNA]

[Spoken] It's a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you'll be taught.

[Singing] As a teacher I've been learning --
You'll forgive me if I boast --
And I've now become an expert,
On the subject I like most.

[Spoken] Getting to know you.

[Singing] Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me.

Getting to know you,
Putting it my way,
But nicely,
You are precisely,
My cup of tea.

[ANNA AND THE MOTHERS]

Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me.

Getting to know you,
Putting it my way,
But nicely,
You are precisely,

[ANNA]

My cup of tea.

[ALL]

Getting to know you,
Getting to feel free and easy
When I am with you,
Getting to know what to say

Haven't you noticed
Suddenly I'm bright and breezy?
Because of all the beautiful and new
Things I'm learning about you
Day by day.

Getting to know you,
Getting to feel free and easy
When I am with you,
Getting to know what to say

Haven't you noticed
Suddenly I'm bright and breezy?
Because of all the beautiful and new
Things I'm learning about you
Day...by...day.


Warning to the Reader: If you are of a certain age and you’ve viewed the film “The King and I” more than just a few times…and, if you read the lyrics above more than twice…you’ll undoubtedly fall prey to the same earworm that has been lodged in my head for more than two weeks now. Trust me on this.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

* * *

Sweet song, isn’t it? Such a lovely sentiment: the joy of getting to know someone.

I once believed I was pretty adept at understanding people. It’s in my nature, so to speak. If you are familiar with Meyers-Briggs parlance, you’ll note that I am a classic INFP…an introverted-intuitive-feeling-perceiver. My intuitive nature held me in very good stead throughout my professional career.

But everything is different now.

I’ve come to realize that I do not know anyone other than my own self (and, sometimes, I’m not all that sure about my self, either). This realization disturbs me greatly.

There was a time when I felt I really knew my friends. We grew up together, influenced each other, shaped each other’s personalities. We spent practically every free moment together. We rarely surprised each other with “out-of-character” behavior. Those days disappeared decades ago. We went our separate ways to lead our separate lives. The friendships have endured the distance and the passage of time but, truth be told, we know so little about each other’s lives nowadays. Time and circumstance have changed us all dramatically, but we are no longer witnesses to all of that. What remains is an eternal love, shrouded in mystery.

I’ve written that I never knew my own mother. She looked at life with Old World eyes. Parents were parents. Children were children. Neither was meant to be a friend or confidant to the other. I never came to know the person wearing the apron.

My father was a different sort. We came to know each other to a degree. I had to become a man, first, before we could engage in a mutual exploration of our respective hearts and souls. But he passed away too soon, leaving so many questions unanswered.

Both parents are gone now. This orphan never really knew them
...and never will.

Then there were my loves. Sigh.

As the events of the past two years have made so obviously, abundantly and painfully clear, I never really knew them either. I thought I did. How can one live with a woman for two decades and not know her? Seems absurd. Yet, it’s true. I neither know nor understand my soon-to-be-ex-wife. Amazing woman, too, is more a fading question mark, more a figment of my imagination than a living, breathing human being. This man never came to know either woman …and never will.

I find all this deeply disturbing. To wake on the 20,225th morning and realize that you do not truly know anyone is…well…disconcerting, at best. I feel as if I’m some ancient navigator who looks to the heavens to chart his course, only to find all the stars have drowned in the sea.

It’s fair to say I’m hopelessly lost. The way forward seems so very precarious.

Do we all not need at least a few verities in our lives?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Shoeless Man

The gates were already descending as I approached the railroad crossing. Just another petulant gray afternoon, but at least I had a few bells and lights to amuse me as the long freight came rumbling through. I knew I was going to sit here for a while, so I shifted the transmission into Park, and settled in.

I looked to my right. The window framed an immense truck tire. Not much to see there. I looked to my left, and there it was: standing upright and alone on the painted lane divider…a man’s shoe.

As shoes go, it was quite nice actually. A fashionable suede clog, and practically new. Strange.

Now, I’ve seen shoes in roadways before, or (more often) tied pairs hanging from electric wires. Shoes that are stained,worn and ragged, alone or paired and not at all worth keeping, litter streets from time to time. This shoe was something altogether different. I’d rather fancy having a pair like that myself. Where was its partner? Why was it here in the road?

In my mind’s eye, I pictured a couple. They argue ferociously in their sullen car as another train, bound for who-knows-where, goes thundering by. She grabs a shoe that he just purchased, and flings it acidly at his head. He ducks, and it sails through the open window.
He curses and rages as the gates rise, and the car behind begins an incessant, damning honking. He’s got to move. Enraged, embittered, he hits the gas and goes. The storm has just begun.

Wait! Hold it!!!

Jonas, you mope! Why be so dark and dour?

Stop the tape. Rewind. Let’s start again...

A man and a woman sit quietly in a sedan. They’ve been lovers for oh-so-many years. They’re hypnotized, transported as the train cars trundle by. Beyond the crossing, farther west, is the entrance to the forest preserve. He glances at her and she at him. They smile at one another. Without really thinking, he removes his shoes. Flipping one casually out the window, he turns to her with an invitation: “Let’s go running through the grass!” Surprised, delighted, she acquiesces
to the notion.

The gates go up and they speed off. Tires squeal as he swerves into the entrance and willy-nilly stops the car. Shoes strewn about (one missing), the doors fly open wildly. They exit. Laughing. Barefoot. They chase each other through the tall, cool grass; then stop, quite breathless, beneath the arching trees. They clutch each other hungrily…then kiss…and drink each other in, toes curling into the giving earth. They laugh again and sigh, while ambling arm in arm across the merrily trampled lawn. Refreshed, reborn, they both float slowly to their car. They’re flushed and greedy, their feet are dirty, but these old loves don’t care. They’re young again. Free and happy as children again. And the cost to feel such love and joy once more?
A shoe.

Quite a bargain, that.

* * *

The Sun Has Burst the Sky
By Jenny Joseph

The sun has burst the sky
Because I love you
And the river its banks.

The sea laps the great rocks
Because I love you
And takes no heed of the moon dragging it away
And saying coldly 'Constancy is not for you'.

The blackbird fills the air
Because I love you
With springs and lawns and shadows falling on lawns.

The people walk in the street and laugh
I love you
And far down the river ships sound their hooters
Crazy with joy because I love you.

* * *


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