Season’s Greetings

A crèche in Michigan, where I lived as a child. (Source: Medusa’s Kitchen

My father was born on 17 December 1907 at his family’s farm in Veselava, which is in the Cēsis district of Latvia. There, no doubt, was a stable and the requisite assortment of domesticated animals, but he, unlike Jesus, whose birthday supposedly occurs a week later, came into the world in a well-appointed house, complete with servants. Which is just as well since it’s freezing cold—not to mention snowy—at that time of year and my father might not have made it. So, as an immigrant growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the weather is similar, I cringed each time that I saw a nativity scene with a nearly naked babe asleep on a bed of straw. My father, who’d studied theology at the University of Latvia in Rīga, cautioned me not to take things in the New Testament too literally since it had been written nearly 20 centuries ago. Still, I felt far better once, decades later, I later learned that even scholars who limit themselves to what’s found in the Bible doubt that the blessed event occurred anytime close to Christmas. Particularly since I learned that neonatal hypothermia can set in anywhere below 77.0 to 82.4° F. As in Bethlehem, where December averages range between 57 and 47.

Separating “Christ” from “Christmas” came easily to me. After all, the Latvian word for “Christmas” is simply “Ziemassvētki,” which merely means “winter celebrations.” As such, it is as much about the winter solstice, the day with the longest night, as it is about a miraculous birth, which was a relatively late add-on. As my mother, a city girl, told me and I later fictionalized in my novel Anna Noon:

Christmas Eve in Rīga started in Dom Square. First with a Lutheran service at the Dom Cathedral, then with a stroll home in softly falling snow, amid carolers lifting their voices in equal measure to Christian and pagan songs and merrymakers cavorting as gypsies, storks and dancing bears. In my fifth-floor flat on Elizabeth Street the tree was bright with white wax candles, not the garish incandescent bulbs used here. My presents opened by starlight, not the glare of the morning sun as is done here.

Moreover, the separation was seen from the start. While solstice celebrations go back at least to neolithic times—10,200 to 8800 BC—the first recorded Christmas celebration occurred in Rome in 336 AD. In fact, some say that Saturnalia, which initially coincided with my father’s birthday and honored Saturn, the Roman god whose reign was seen as a time of peace and prosperity, served as a model for the first Christmas. There are certainly similarities. Saturbalia was celebrated by “a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying and a carnival atmosphere that overturned social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves.” It, like most winter solstice celebrations, was a festival of lights, with candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. No wonder the poet Catullus called it “the best of days.” Nevertheless, Christmas turned out to be an off-and-on affair. The Puritans, for instance, banned it in the 17th century, citing drunk and disorderly conduct. Revived in the 19th century with the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church, it remained disreputable. The family oriented occasion that we have come to know, according to some, is mainly the invention of Charles Dickens and other writers.

But both winter solstice celebrations and Christmas are not only about “the best of days” but also about the worst of days, and therein lies their true meaning. As sung in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.” The reason that December celebrations tend to be glutenous and raucous is that the period from January to April was once known as “the famine months.” Animals were slaughtered so they wouldn’t have to be fed, therefore a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. Moreover, wine and beer had been fermenting since the harvest and were ready for drinking. For those with meager resources, however, the struggle for survival could be brutal. The middle-aged black man who I saw daily after moving to Boston in the Seventies who had set up a tent made of rags in a space on the street by a curb cleared of snow to provide access to a fire hydrant. And the other 554,000 people reported to be homeless in the United States alone on a given night. The mothers and fathers with one-month old infants, the same age that I was when we were forced to flee our native land. And the other 68.5 million people worldwide today who, according to the latest report, have been forcibly displaced in the worst refugee crisis since the one we experienced after World War II. All cold and hungry and far from home. Like my family and I were once. And—if only symbolically—like Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.

‘Tis the season for all those sorts of things.

Note: Each year around this time I give a gift of winter supplies for refugees through the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid, relief and development organization founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein. Would be wonderful if you could do so, as well.

 

A family friendly winter solstice celebration hosted by The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia, located just outside of the capital city Rīga.

Jingle Bells,” played in 2017 by some children living at the Aida Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem and Beit Jala in the central West Bank.

Welcome to America

Five-year-old me photographed for emigration to the United States.

As indignities go, it ranked relatively low. After all, I had been subjected to senseless fumigation. An insult to any girl whose grandmother has taught her to wash her hands after everything and to always carry a clean handkerchief. But, somehow, making me look like a monkey in my first official photograph crossed the line. Some self-important functionary had said that my ears, which stuck out, had to be clearly visible or I would not be allowed to emigrate to the United States. So my mother braided my hair and attached it to the top of my head, and I let everyone know exactly how I felt about that. Or so I was told, at least. I have no actual memory of anything from my first five years, when I was a little displaced person from war-torn Latvia.

Similarly, I have no memory of the turbulent transatlantic crossing in a converted troop carrier, the General S. D. Sturgis, in the middle of a mid-October hurricane, where almost everyone but my father and a cook was too seasick to eat. Or of refusing to be labeled like luggage at Ellis Island, where I not only tore off my tag and drew a picture of a girl on the back but also snatched those identifying other refugee kids. Or of the 730-mile train ride to Michigan. Or of my mother bursting into tears once she disembarked in the Lowell station and saw the bleak surroundings. Or of the meager meal of canned tomato soup and Saltine crackers that our sponsors, a Lutheran minister and his wife, served us before putting my mother to work. Meaning that she was to hand-wash the dirty laundry accumulated since their washing machine had broken down, except that my mother—a clever lady shaking from exhaustion—diagnosed the problem as a short and fixed it with wire strippers and electrical tape and then only had to repeatedly load and unload the machine and carry everything out to the yard to dry. Or of the cramped, unheated space above the garage that they deemed suitable quarters for four people, including an old woman and a small child, during a chilly fall and the following freezing winter. Or of my urbane father being tasked to single-handedly turn their fallow fields into a functioning horse farm. Or of him walking 26 miles in deep snow to Grand Rapids, the closest large town, to secure a factory job. Or of us moving to a nice flat on Ethel Street.

The first thing that I do remember is staring at a large Coca-Cola clock on the cloakroom wall at Sigsbee Elementary School, where I sat for what seemed like an eternity, terrified that no one would come to take me home from kindergarten. Before you conclude that this was the same sort of separation anxiety seen in American kids starting school, let me remind you that Europe had been decimated by World War II and dealing with the devastating aftermath. As a result, my father and mother and maternal grandmother had been the only source of stability that I had ever known. The thought that I had been left to fend for myself was unbearable. Which is why I am appalled when Americans refer to the “zero-tolerance” policy of separating children from parents who cross the Mexican border to seek asylumtheir right under both US and international law—as sending them to “essentially summer camps” or “basically boarding schools.”

As you might expect from the way that my family and I were welcomed to the United States, I was not nearly as shocked as many of my progressive American friends were by the way that a recently empowered segment of our society views foreigners who have been forced to flee their native land. That was always there, if not always so openly expressed. But back then, at least, no one kept me from my family. Despite my worst fears, someone eventually took me back to Ethel Street. Still, the memory of sitting alone in that cloakroom with that ticking clock stays with me to this day. I wonder what traumatic memories and subconscious changes will stay with the 2500 some kids recently separated and sent to shelters in at least 16 states. Some are only a few months old. Hundreds have been apart from their parents for several weeks. And there is no good system for reuniting them, so who knows how many will ever see Mom or Dad.

 

A border patrol agent takes a youngster into custody in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where at least three facilities are holding “tender age” migrants. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

 

Children are held in a US Customs and Border Protection detention facility at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Texas. (Source: US Customs and Border Protection/Reuters)

 

To Leave Or To Stay

Officials tour the historic district of Ellicott City, Maryland after the second “1000-year flood” in less than two years again devastated the area.

The second time in approximately four years that the Soviet Union made moves to occupy Latvia, some 250,000 people fled. That included one-month-old me, my parents and my maternal grandmother. We, along with the family of one of my father’s sisters, eventually ended up in the United States. His other sister and her spouse, as well as a nephew, resettled in England. While many in exile around the world vowed that they would return as soon as Latvia regained independence, few did after that occurred. In fact, independence only led to more emigration. Which increased after membership in the European Union and the global financial crisis provided more mobility and motivation. As a result, 200,000 or so Latvians left.

As far as I know, no family member ever considered returning to live in Latvia. No one even bothered to reclaim abandoned property or obtain dual citizenship. My father viewed those who were certain they would go back as delusional, correctly calling their bluff. No one in their right mind would give up comfort and security for some romantic notion of a homeland unchanged from how it was imagined to have been. Particularly since it was well known that half a century of Soviet rule had radically altered everything from commerce to culture. Even the demographics were substantially different. Moreover, geography was not on their side. Latvia had long been prey to larger imperialistic countries that, for one, coveted a harbor on the Baltic Sea navigable in winter. And Russia still casts a greedy eye.

I never thought that, living in the States, I would ever find myself in a situation where people were not only forced to flee but also to admit that they had no rational reason to return. Yet that turned out to be the direct result of my buying an 1830s mill worker’s house in the Oella area of Ellicott City, Maryland about two decades ago. And it was so predictable. You see, the reason that a house like that was available to me was due to Hurricane Agnes destroying the mill race in 1972. The mill was closed, and the owner turned to real estate development. And the reason that I talked myself into buying that particular property despite knowing the history of flooding in the area was that it was built into a steep hillside high above the Patapsco River. Rainwater ran downhill into the river, so there was really no problem. I was not even required to carry basic flood insurance.

What I failed to consider—apart from fallen trees and downed power lines and long detours—was how hard it would be to function when, just down the road, a historic district full of specialty shops and up-scale restaurants being decimated with increasing frequency. In 2011, it was flooding brought about by Tropical Storm Lee. In 2012, it was structural damage, first from a rare derecho and then from an extraordinary train derailment that buried two teens under massive piles of coal. In 2016, it was the “1000-year flood,” which washed away two people, all but demolished the district and required years of rebuilding, which—together with the rumbling of heavy trucks on my road and the circling of helicopters above my house—made my days miserable. Followed by last week’s demoralizing flood, which was worse that its predecessor and killed a man.

While the earlier flood could be dismissed as an isolated event, the more recent one suggested that a new—possibly permanent—weather pattern was in place. Storms now did more than cause waterways to rise. Remarkable amounts of runoff from the impervious surfaces of the surrounding hills descended with amazing force, way more than the swollen streams and rivers could accommodate. Funneled by rows of buildings and roiled by parked cars, raging water turned roads in the district into whitewater rapids. Pulling up pavement and creating caverns, it smashed windows and walls to gut building interiors and collapse entire lower levels of some structures. Likely causes included overdevelopment and climate change, problems that even progressive planners seem unable to reverse.

When I heard that fewer people than before might return, I thought of my father. Twice in two years is too much, he would say. Particularly when basic assumptions have changed. The Bean Hollow Cafe owner’s Facebook post that deals with her decision makes sense:

The BH call from the flood of 2016 was described by the 911 operator as the worst of all the calls she took that night. Listening to it was devastating to me. I never got over it, and just typing this makes me cry. I really can’t live with this level of fear and anxiety anymore. We were able to rebuild the first time because the community bridged the gap between flood insurance and actual cost, and because we were supported by so much love from all of you and the determination born from all the love we have for you, our fellow merchants, residents and the our community that extends all across the continents. After a lot of soul searching and a lot of heartbreak, we feel that as badly as we want to come back, we cannot in good conscience rebuild in E.C.

I might be ready to call it quits, as well. The house that I maintain is safe from floods is vulnerable to landslides. You see, above my modest row of mill workers’ abodes are much larger, more modern, more expensive structures. The one behind me is so obscured by trees that it is easy to forget. But I now think about the swimming pool that was installed after I moved in. It turned that part of the yard that looks down on mine into a surface that does not absorb normal amounts of rainfall. Storms of the sort that cause floods create waterfalls that end in the vicinity of my study. My homeowners association’s Architectural Review Committee—which once agonized over whether a fence must be painted white or taupe—apparently approved the pool. That it stressed an already fragile ecosystem did not matter. So I doubt there is much interest in hillside stabilization.

While I remain wary, there is cause for optimism. Howard County, where much of Ellicott City is located, has far more resources and know-how than most, being among the richest and best-educated in the country. Substantial state and federal funds have been allocated for disaster relief and flood control. And past performance predicts that rebuilding could occur in record time. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that it would take at least 10 years to recover from the 2016 flood, “near miraculous” progress occurred in one year. Moreover, business owners here are resilient. Not long after he arrived from war-torn Syria, for instance, Khaldoun Alghatrif and his brother Majd came up with a concept for a cafe and gallery—Syriana—that shows a side of their nation not normally seen in the news. “We just opened three weeks before the flood,” said Khaldoun, who now manages the gallery. “It’s a start-up business, so we struggle a lot.” After being rebuilt only to be damaged again by last week’s flood, the gallery as well as the cafe, now owned and operated by Majd and his wife Rasha, maintain a positive tone. An update posted almost immediately after the flood reads, “We are missioned to get back on our feet to lend hand to the rest of us in their journey to stand up again. Tough times are ahead of us, but we can only pull through it if we were all there for each other.”

I had hoped to talk with Khaldoun, but the times between disasters never seemed right. There were others, however, that I knew here who showed the same spirit. The late Alda Baptiste, who owned the best bridal shop in the area and came to be called “the unofficial mayor of Ellicott City.” Always a quirky character, she was born to a Portuguese fisherman’s family in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Starting out in 1968 with a fabric store on Tongue Row, Alda moved to Main Street in 1970. After surviving the 1972 flood that nearly put her out of business, she took advantage of plummeting property values to buy a building where she could set up shop on the ground floor and live in the top two stories. When my mother moved here after my father died, she—a comparably quirky lady—avoided most people her age, saying, “All they do is whine about their ailments.” She and Alda, however, became fast friends. I spent many enjoyable evenings engaged in lively conversation with them and others from the area over fine food and wine. Alda died within months of my mother. Her building was sold, painted purple and turned into a Beatles-themed hotel, The Obladi. Which might have made her smile.

At this point, I do not know whether it would be smarter to leave or to stay. Starting from the time that I was a small displaced person, I have had 35 addresses over the course of my life. The mill worker’s house is where I have lived the longest. Perhaps I have reached my limit. Perhaps I have one more move left in me. I have always wanted a house on an ocean. All I know is that I need a place where people like Alda and Khaldoun and my mother and me are all able to live and work and try to enjoy life. For now, that will have to be Ellicott City.

Note: A Facebook friend and fellow Latvian American posted this comment in response to a Main Street flood recovery effort video that I shared: “Sorry. But the first thing that comes to mind: ‘Look how fast they clean up those wealthy white liberal elite neighborhoods while Puerto Rico is still a shambles a year later.’ ” While I feel that he misrepresents Main Street residents, business owners and employees a bit since they are more diverse and less affluent than he might imagine, he makes an important point. I would, therefore, encourage you to help flood victims both in our area and in Puerto Rico. And if there has to be a choice, donate to the people of Puerto Rico. How these United States citizens have been treated by our federal government is both a tragedy and a national disgrace.

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Paul McCartney singing his “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La- Da” (1968) in 2010.

A Book About Sentient Beings, Great and Small

Front and back covers of the English-language version of a Latvian book.

Sometimes I wonder how I manage to have any friends at all. Take what I did to the talented Rīga illustrator Rūta Briede shortly after I was introduced to her by someone I knew from my childhood. Rūta had sent me the drafts of three books merely to give me some idea of the current state of children’s literature in Latvia; I responded by sending her three single-spaced pages of comments on one of them, addressing everything from color scheme to parallel construction to atmospheric science. I did say in the accompanying message, “Please understand that they are just initial reactions and that I, like many Latvians that I know here, state my opinions far more forcibly than I should, or even than I intend.” But that didn’t stop me from having the same sick feeling after hitting “Send” that I had as a child after I couldn’t keep from doing something that I knew full well was wrong.

Remarkably, Rūta could read between the lines. She understood that I would never have bothered doing any of that had The Dog Who Found Sorrow not meant so much to me. You see, it was one of those rare books that took children’s feelings seriously, and I was one of myriad others who grew up wondering why their experiences during war and displacement and other dreadful events were routinely trivialized by similarly distraught adults. It bothered me so much that when, late in life, I wrote my first story,“Making Soup,” I gave voice to a one-month-old infant and made her position clear from the start:

A woman on a bicycle stopped to tickle my stomach. It was bad enough she did that without my leave, but then she turned to my mother and said, “Thank God she is too young to understand.” Perhaps I was too young to play the piano or read Proust, but I was not too young to understand what went on around me. I understood before I came into the world, when my mother carried me inside of her. She gasped, and I had no air to breathe.

Rūta grants this sort of awareness to all sentient beings, both great and small. She uses a grown dog as her first-person narrator, and this dog demands that he be taken as seriously as my verbal infant. As depicted through evocative grayscale illustrations provided by Elīna Brasliņa, Rūta’s former student, his ears are erect, not floppy, indicating that he has not become domesticated and does not want to be seen as either an able assistant or a pampered pet. Similarly, his nose is long and pointy, not short and round.  And being a thoroughly modern urban male, he not only walks upright and wears a coat but also grows pink roses, which he sometimes soothes with his harmonica. Accordingly, Rūta calls him “suns”—not the endearing “sunītis“—in Latvian, a language seemingly dominated by such diminutives.

Thus, Rūta and I were, more or less, on the same page. Then I had to tease her about the book’s themes and endanger our rapport. If only I had limited myself to exclaiming, “How Latvian!” This, after all, was the first reaction that I received from poet and publisher Clarinda Harriss after I asked her to look at the book. Clarinda, you see, had learned enough about my native land to know that this was so. Even enough that she had incorporated me into her story “The Vinegar Drinker” and made my character provide the protagonist with a recipe for galerts, an elegant aspic made mainly of pigs feet. But I had to take it further, much like a child has to test the limits. Referring to the sorrow that permeates the book, I sent Rūta a video clip from the Onion News Network featuring Latvian American actress Laila Robins demanding that her subordinate give her a hit or she would make him her news director in Latvia. “You know what the Number 1 hobby in Latvia is?” When he indicates that he does not, she unsmilingly says, “Sadness.” Fortunately, Rūta said she found it to be funny.

But sadness was so painstakingly detailed in the book that I came to believe it was meant to be something more than a national tendency. This particular sadness started out as mysterious black smoke that poured out of “everything that was lonely and abandoned,” causing residents to cough and destroying both the color and scent of roses, only to form a large cloud “as dark and hard as a cast-iron pan,” impenetrable to raindrops, which turned out to be tears. In contrast to the modern dog and other up-to-date denizens of what could easily be Rīga, this sadness had an old-fashioned feel, reminiscent of the soot that once coated cities during the Industrial Revolution. Doing some digging, I learned that Latvia is still dealing with the legacy of ecological damage brought about by the poorly planned industrialization that occurred after it was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. And that, despite the impressive economic gains and the cultural rebirth that followed the restoration of independence in 1991, Latvia is losing population at an alarming rate and even the vibrant city of Rīga, sadly, is now called “The Capital of Empty Spaces.”

Undaunted by the impossibility of his undertaking and the obscurity of my references, the dog, armed only with a ladder and a curtain rod, pokes a hole in the cloud. Once inside, he is surrounded by sorrows, at least one of whom is female. I see them as the mothers, sisters and wives of men such as my uncle who were first conscripted into the German Army against their will, then punished by the Soviets, who deported them to remote regions such as Kazakhstan and imprisoned them in slave-labor camps, but I have such an overactive imagination. Not knowing what to do, the dog—”How Latvian!”—resorts to music, which results in dancing, which breaks apart the cloud and releases the tears, which wash away the soot. That isn’t as unlikely as it seems. Between 1987 and 1991, Latvians participated in an Estonian initiative, The Singing Revolution. It culminated in a human chain spanning the three Baltic nations that could have hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. Less known but maybe more important is the role of the Environmental Protection Club, which resisted the industrialization, in constituting the core of The Latvian National Independence Movement. Success in blocking the building of a hydroelectric dam emboldened many other opposition groups.

“Hey, that’s too heavy a load to place on such a slender volume,” you—or even Rūta, who is currently participating in the London Book Fair and conveniently unavailable for comment—could say. But remember that once a book is released, it belongs to the reader. And I have decided that I have rights that extend beyond those of a regular reader. Rūta was kind enough to acknowledge me in the back matter, which, in my mind, makes me the dear dog’s agnostic godmother. Which requires that I look after his future. And it is a future that already includes East Asian nations such as  Korea, Taiwan and China, where politician oppression and industrial pollution are realities that seep into the consciousness of the largest and smallest beings. And it is a future that could well include temporary settlements around the world that house young and old victims of the worst refugee crisis since the one that I experienced. As well as great American cities such as Detroit and Baltimore from which affluent families flee and leave behind much that is “lonely and abandoned.”

But before I press “Publish” and, yet again, cringe at the thought of what I have unleashed, allow me slip in one more layer of meaning. Although Rūta and Elīna might disagree, I cannot help seeing the dog that they brought into being as their alter ego. Or even a second self representing contemporary Latvian illustrators as a whole. One reason—other than the sheer impressiveness of their body of work—that I am so taken by them is that, unlike many others, they have managed, without denying its existence, to put Latvia’s troubled past  behind them and briskly move forward. And it turns out that I am not the only one to feel that way. Rosie Goldsmith, an award-winning British journalist specializing in the arts, has observed that while contemporary Latvian writers seem to be burdened by the past, illustrators, in contrast, appear to be liberated. One could say that it is almost as though some well-drawn dog has ripped apart a dark, oppressive cloud and let color and scent return to the roses.

Note: Rūta Briede is a graphic designer, a lecturer at the Art Academy of Latvia and an art editor at Liels un Mazs (Great and Small), a Latvian children’s book publisher. The Dog Who Found Sorrow is Briede’s first but not only collaboration with Elīna Brasliņa, an accomplished artist in her own right who translated Briede’s The Queen of Seagulls, which received an International Baltic Sea Region Jānis Baltvilks Prize in 2017. For more on my dealings with dogs, read my essay “Me, As Mammal.”

 

The dog, who played the harmonica for a rosebush, plays for the sorrows.

 

Some “lonely and abandoned” buildings in Rīga being revived bit by bit.

 

Some well-deserved recognition for Latvia’s new “liberated” illustrators. 

 

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Two illustrators at the 2018 London Book Fair, which features Latvia.

ILSE MUNRO

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