So Long, Laima

Three Latvian deities: Māra, Dievs and Laima (Painting:  Jēkabs Bīne)

Laima, the primary Latvian goddess of destiny, likes to live under willow trees. And willow trees like to live on riverbanks. And a riverbank was where I elected to live when I moved to Maryland and bought a house. A portion of the Patapsco River’s bank, to be specific. Which came complete with a large willow tree and, I had to assume since I was Latvian by birth, the goddess Laima. Because Latvians—and do not let anyone tell you otherwise—are basically pagans. While most modern Latvians identify themselves as Lutheran and a smaller number as Catholic, Orthodox or even agnostic like me, right below the surface, our essence still resonates most with all the ancient deities.

Meaning that we are not so different from the peasants living in the Vidzeme (Middle Land) region, where I was born, when the 16th Century geographer Sebastian Münster came upon them and, with unpleasant surprise, recorded in his 22-volume encyclopedia Cosmographia that there “are many of those, who know nothing of God and his saints. One worships sun, another moon, one chooses a beautiful tree to worship, while another a stone or whatever he pleases.” To which Balthasar Russow, in The Chronicle of Livonia, quite disparagingly added, “They hold some brushwoods as holy sites, which were forbidden to cut down. Their superstition was so great that one who would cut down a tree in the holy place would be killed immediately.”

Which leads me to the point of this piece, which is that on 6 January 2016—which happened to be Epiphany in the Christian world—men in reflective vests with large bucket-bearing and mulch-making trucks arrived in front of my house and, after much discussion, started to ensnare the largest limbs of the willow. As I watched them work from my front porch swing, sipping my morning coffee, all that disturbed me was the noise. I assumed that the tree would be trimmed, a common occurrence around here. But when the trucks and men returned the following day, a primitive rage arose. I left my spot on the swing to keep from acting upon murderous impulses, telling myself that they were mere agents of a higher power. Likely not Dievs, but at least the Oella Homeowners Association. Once I returned hours later to find that only a stump remained (see below), I was less angry than sad.

Of course, the OHA was within its rights. You see, while I viewed the riverbank as an extension of my front yard, it was, in fact, separated from my house by a narrow road and a strip of sidewalk and constituted common space administered on our behalf by the OHA. And, of course, there were good reasons why the OHA might want the willow gone. It blocked our view of the river. And its roots, aggressively seeking moisture, could present problems if they clogged our water and sewer systems. And, while I viewed the tree as Laima’s home, truth be told, it was a weeping willow. Which is a hybrid of the Chinese Peking willow (Salix babylonica) and the European white willow (Salix alba), and, therefore, not a Latvian willow. (Hey, we exiles have to adapt.)

And, to be honest, I have not been happy with Laima of late. Last year alone, she made my life holy hell with an array of physical afflictions and even set it up so that I almost died. Not to mention messing with the stock market so that I barely eked out a profit and, this year, seem well on my way to a substantial loss. And all the stuff that she decided should break. Apparently, her rule is that a decade after a major renovation everything in a historic millworker’s house should fall apart. Particularly during those historic cold snaps and heat waves she so thoughtfully arranged. And, if I thought that you had an hour or so to spare, she has given me enough material to write about much more. So, maybe I should simply rejoice that she has been forced to flee.

Still, what I have always adored about the ancient deities is that they were never saints. Just consider the Greek or Roman mythologies. Perhaps the solution, therefore, was to take a page from Marie Phillips‘ 2007 novel Gods Behaving Badly, where she felt free to portray the 12 divine beings of Mount Olympus as living in a modern-day rundown London flat while witnessing their powers wane. I could just as easily envision Laima, evicted from her scenic site on the Patapsco riverbank relocating to more urban digs just down the hill in front of the Ellicott City Railroad Museum under one of those linden trees, which some say that she likes as much as willows. That way, I could keep her from meddling in day-to-day matters but still have her nearby to blame for events that I would rather attribute to fate.


Weeping Willow Stump
The sad stump where the weeping willow once stood and Laima once lived. (Photo: Ilse Munro)


Note: Little Patuxent Review, where I was once the online editor, is launching the Winter 2016 issue, Myth, on January 31. Attend the launch reading and purchase a copy, either there or online.

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