All posts by Ilse Munro

Ilse Munro was born in Latvia and came to the United States as a war refugee. She was a NASA and Defense Department consultant, then the online editor at Little Patuxent Review and the prose editor at BrickHouse Books. Her short fiction, collected in Cold and Hungry and Far From Home, appears in TriQuarterly, Atticus Review and Wake and made her a finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest and Short Story Award for New Writers. Her novel Anna Noon is in the works. She lives in a historic millworker’s house on Maryland's Patapsco River. For more, see http://ilsemunro.com.

Bread, Salt and Water

All I had on my dining room table this New Year’s Eve (Photo: Ilse Munro)

One thing I learned early on was that you see in the new year properly or suffer the consequences. Even though we arrived in the United States as Latvian refugees who had lost everything in World War II, soon there was caviar and vodka on the table on New Year’s Eve. And on New Year’s Day, there was a remarkable dish garnished with dill, lavished with Hollandaise sauce and washed down with white wine: a poached fish with head, tail and skin intact but bones and flesh removed, the later turned into forcemeat that—together with hardboiled eggs and other artistically arranged items that looked lovely when sliced—was reintroduced into the unscathed skin.

Alas, more was involved than mere food and drink. The scales from the fish were rinsed clean, dried in the oven and, apportioned by the number of people present, wrapped in parchment and given to each to put in a pocket. Then silver coins were handed out to each to put in a shoe. This belt-and-suspenders approach increased the certainty that there would be abundant wealth in the coming year. At least according to my maternal grandmother, who had once been a businesswoman and was the most financially savvy among us. Even  with this, she would warn, good luck could elude us if the first to cross our threshold was anyone other than a tall, handsome, dark-haired man. Even my father, who fit the bill but was disqualified, had his own two cents to add: as soon as the clock struck twelve, we had to head outside to toast the entire world. And, no matter how wasted we were or how deep the snow might be, take a long walk after breakfast.

I suppose I could have scrapped all that when I left home and distanced myself from the Latvian-American community. Instead, I not only dutifully performed every ritual and internalized every superstition but also added a few of my own. The latter started simply enough with a decision to dispense with the American custom of making, then breaking New Year’s resolutions. Would it not make more sense, I wondered, to get my life in order before the old year ends so that I could start the new one with a clean slate? My response to something so seemingly sensible soon turned into a compulsion as compelling as any that came from my ancestors. Every bill had to be paid, every room—closets and cupboards included—had to be cleaned, every obligation had to be met. Not to mention shopping for liquor and fish and washing and drying those damn fish scales.

By the time, decades later, that my father had died and my mother and her demanding English Springer Spaniel had moved from Michigan to Maryland to live with me—while I was making the 60-mile DC commute, working 16-hour days and flying cross-country on business trips—I sought simplification. Not at first, of course. She loved the holidays as much I did, which only motivated me to do more. But as the year that she turned 90 drew to a close, I was dragging so badly that the best that I could do was haul home a tree and prop it up in a corner, where it stood for days before I could bring myself to set it up and decorate it. Come Christmas Eve—when Latvians hold their main celebration—everything looked festive, but it then took another supreme effort to start New Year’s preparations.

Perhaps I sensed that this would be our last New Year’s Eve together. Perhaps she sensed it, too. At any rate, she felt the need to lighten my load. All those things that we do, she confessed, are nice but not that necessary. All that really matters is that there is bread, salt and water on the table by midnight. With those three essentials, any resourceful person can survive—and even thrive—in the coming year. Of course, I managed to do all the unnecessary things that I had done before. But, from then on, every year but one, an arrangement of bread, salt and water occupied a prominent place on the table. Particularly the last few years, when it became impossible to ignore the role that hunger plays in the United States and also in the global refugee crisis, which is the worst since World War II, when my family and I were among the more than 50 million displaced persons.

The exception was the one time in my life when, for want of better words, I thought: fuck it. Without doing a damn thing, I went to bed early instead of seeing in 2015. Within weeks, I was hospitalized and nearly died. The reason, I knew, had nothing to do with my singular lapse. In retrospect, my health had been deteriorating throughout 2014 and causing considerable lethargy. But, when it came time to ring in 2016, I did not dare take chances. I made absolutely sure that I would be awake and that, at the least, there would be bread, salt and water on the table. And since 2016 was generally acknowledged to rank among the worst years ever and 2017, what with the political situation as it was and all, was unlikely to be much better, I decided not to tempt fate and do substantially more than the minimal.

So, I re-stocked my liquor cabinet and wine bin. Then headed for the fish store where I was once instantly recognized as the fish-scale lady. Only this time, no one remembered me. And I opted for red snapper instead of rockfish, which my late mother liked to call “rocket fish” in honor of my NASA consulting work. But did manage to pick up some caviar, which she would have wanted, as well as a dessert that, in deference to her cravings, had to included some form of chocolate. By the final countdown, all my bills were paid—easy now that everything is automated—and there was bread, salt and water on the table. And other items reserved for after midnight and the following day. And there was one of the Kennedy half dollars that my maternal grandmother collected in my shoe and a packet of fish scales in my pocket and more scales in a pretty silver box on the table. The house, apart from the dining room, was mainly a mess as were other aspects of my life, but somehow now it did not matter.

I lit candles, including one that I placed in the window for all my distant and departed family members and friends. Then, at the proper time, walked out onto my front porch and raised a glass to 2017. It was unseasonably warm but cloudy, so I could not see either fireworks or stars as I crossed the street to stand on my riverbank. And I was all alone—my neighbors were celebrating elsewhere—so there was no one to grab for a kiss. In fact, if any tall, dark, handsome man were to cross my threshold in the new year, it would likely be an installer from Best Buy, since several major appliances had recently died. But when I returned inside for caviar and cake, everything suddenly looked so lovely. I was strangely satisfied with my imperfect effort and even allowed myself a moment of irrational optimism.

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In addition to the basics of bread, salt and water, necessities for welcoming the new year were expanded to include dried fish scales in a silver box and a Kennedy half dollar as well as dry white wine, black caviar on ice and chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting. (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Note: If you have European, British or Middle Eastern roots, you might want to learn about variants of welcome rituals based on bread and salt. And if you then want to do something that is more than merely symbolic, might want to send New Year’s greetings to family and friends through the International Rescue Committee, which lets you make gifts that help refugees in their name, which is what I also did this on New Year’s Eve.

Before The Storms Begin

A refugee boat organised by the Latvian Central Council on the way to the island of Gotland. (Source: Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.)

I was born toward the end of August, when—despite the summery weather—a few leaves had already turned red or gold. A month or so later, my father, my mother, her mother and I were forced to flee my birthplace, Valmiera, which the invading Soviet Army subsequently burned to the ground. We kept going—first by car, then by ship and, finally, by train—until we reached the Austrian Alps, where we found refuge. Some five years later, we crossed the Atlantic Ocean during a mid-October hurricane to resettle in the United States. So, from the start, autumn has been a time of great urgency and gratitude for me.

This was put into words when I learned “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” at the first elementary school that I attended in the States:

Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come;
Raise the song of harvest home!

The urgency was expressed in the “safely gathered in” part, which I took to mean everything that had to be done before winter arrived. If we did not have to harvest crops, there was produce to be put up and a pantry to be stocked. And leaves to be raked into piles and burned. And storm windows to be installed and heating oil to be delivered and coats and hats and mittens and boots to be bought. The gratitude was expressed in the “God . . . doth provide” part, though—skeptical of the existence of a Beneficent Being even then—I unconsciously replaced Him with my resourceful parents and grandmother and the occasional kind stranger. Since such adults, even in Austria, managed to do what must be done, I was left to look for signs of snow. Each year, I selected one dry leaf on one all but bare branch and willed it to drop, believing that then sparkly flakes would fall.

Last September, I felt the same urgency, but not the same gratitude. The worst refugee crisis since the one that I had experienced was underway. While the good people of Lesbos and the like struggled to save those who came to their shores in overcrowded dinghies and others in northern countries such as Austria were welcoming, a remarkable number of Latvians and Latvian-Americans remained indifferent or even hostile. Since I saw myself in the faces of uprooted Syrian children and my parents and grandmother in the arms that held them, I experienced their abandonment. Not knowing what to do, I posted a piece, “Debt of Honor,” urging former Latvian refugees like me as well as their progeny to show more support. And was pleased when it  received thousands of views and started some spirited discussions. And was crushed when it ultimately failed to convince anyone not in basic agreement with me. I could not understand how the remainder could be so incapable of empathy, and they could not understand how I could say what I did. Over and over, they told me in various ways,”You don’t understand. It’s not at all the same.”

This September, I entertained the possibility that the majority view might have merit. This came about while I was searching for images of Latvian refugees crossing the Baltic Sea in woefully inadequate contraptions comparable to those now used for Mediterranean Sea crossings. Since over 3770 making the Mediterranean crossing died doing so in 2015 alone, I thought that there would be a compelling parallel to draw. I learned, instead, that only a few thousand Latvian refugees had fled in this manner. Most of us, mainly members of the cultural, political and economic elite, were evacuated in seaworthy ships under the protection of the retreating German Army. Just how different this was is evident, for instance, in videos of well-dressed women and children carrying bouquets of flowers. And stories from people such as my father, who was allowed to bring his red sports car onboard, even though it was subsequently confiscate in Danzig.

The more I thought about the implications of this difference, the more others came to mind. Soon, I could completely see why former Latvian refugees and following generations might not readily relate to Syrian refugees. And certainly not to those, say, who fled Somalia. But that did not explain why I felt such kinship. I could not believe that I was nothing more than a bleeding heart, particularly since I am something of a hard-ass. After careful analysis, I concluded that I could be characterized not only as hard-assed but also as imaginative. Both attributes have come in handy in my scientific and technical work as well as fiction writing, But the latter has an additional benefit. As novelist Ian McEwan noted when calling the September 11 attacks a “failure of the imagination,” “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

This failure of the imagination, of course, is not limited to terrorists or those with whom I share some history. It is a problem of global proportions. People on either side of any divide—racial, cultural, political or spiritual—seem more ready than ever to erect barriers against each other and, as though that was not bad enough, to seek out others with the intent of changing or eradicating them. Simultaneously, it seems that the forces throwing many opposites together—say, the displacement and migration caused by armed conflict, climate change and economic hardship—have never been greater. I cannot see this ending well unless we, as individuals and groups, become far more imaginative. And soon since winter is on the way.

We could start now. Look at the photograph below, where refugees disembark a small boat against the backdrop of storm clouds and an angry sea. Then pick out a person and imagine how he or she feels. (My choice is the toddler with the flimsy blanket held by the man in a short-sleeved shirt.) Then imagine what you would do. (I would get her a down parka and and insulated boots. And some form of shelter. And water and food, of course. And do the same for the man since she cannot survive without an adult to care for her.) Then play the video below showing schoolchildren and teachers performing for audience members. Imagine that most are from the nation where you live and a few years have passed and that the person that you selected is now among them, safe and warm. (At this point, there is little left for me to imagine. I once was that refugee girl singing an English hymn in an American school, waiting for that dry leaf to fall.)

 

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Refugees arrive at Lesbos on 14 October 2015 after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on a dinghy. (Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP / Getty Images)


“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Hope PR School Program 2013.

Note: Last autumn, when I was looking for something more tangible than words to contribute to the refugee situation, I was looking for a birthday gift to send to someone of Latvian descent who was born in one of the World War II displaced person camps in Germany. I had sent her a wool scarf from a fancy store the previous year but decided to do something different. I went the the website of the International Rescue Committee, the organization where I once did volunteer work, and bought a refugee rescue giftWarmth Through the Winter—in her name. And vowed that I would do something similar for everyone else, whether or not they cared about the current crisis. And would ask that they do the same for me.

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Warmth Through the Winter. (Source: International Rescue Committee)

Me, As Mammal

Zeke, my first non-human mammal friend. (Photo: Duncan R. Munro)

There was a time when I wondered whether something was wrong with me. I was often uncomfortable being called “Latvian,” for one. “C’mon,” I countered, having spent most of my formative years in the Midwest, “I was little more than one month old when I was bundled off to Austria.” “Quite so,” anyone who heard that could respond. “But you don’t identify much with Austrians or Americans, either.”

Truth be told, I have tried to wriggle out of any show of group commitment more fervent than a perfunctory reciting of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Such as all that stuff that I had to say as a self-conscious 16-year-old at the far-too-public rite of Lutheran confirmation. Or all that stuff that I had to scream in support of high school and college athletic organizations. My lack of zeal for my undergraduate football team was particularly perplexing since it was a Big Ten powerhouse. That this occurred in the Sixties, when the U of M was the “Hotbed of Liberalism,” did not help, either. I shrank from affirmations at SDS meetings. While markedly different, they seemed similarly coercive.

I came to claim that the best I could do was accept membership in the human race or, more accurately, the Homo sapiens species. But even that rubbed me the wrong way once it struck me how disturbingly the Bible, which forms the basis of my Judeo-Christian culture, starts out:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. [Italics mine.]

Honestly, I did not want my name associated with any group that advocated that degree of exceptionalism and imperialism. So I settled for seeing myself as a mere speck in a vast Universe, both the known and the unknown one. That worked when considering major issues such as Life and Death but did little for me on a day-to-day basis.

I saw no viable solution until I reached middle age, which is when I was grown up enough to acknowledge that I was once and probably always will be a displaced person. I started writing about that, then volunteered my services to the Baltimore branch of the International Rescue Committee, which helps resettle a range of refugees in my area. And, once the refugee situation reached crisis proportions comparable only to what my family and I experienced after World War II,  I wrote about my debt to today’s refugees, which was viewed by thousands and, hopefully, spurred some to action. I even sided with displaced plants and took on both those nativists who wage war on non-native vegetation and those who do so on non-native people.

Still, it seemed sad to only be able to identify with people and plants that do not belong. Which got me thinking about Zeke. Never was a sentient being more confident of his place in the world. And more capable of committing to those beyond his own species, Canis lupus. He gave us Homo sapiens licks and wags and cheerfully tolerated all those strange training regimens that we foisted on him. His exceptions, embarrassingly, revolved around the darker-skinned members of my then husband’s British football team. But Zeke made it clear that this was only his anomaly detector at work by also barking furiously whenever the right-side-up version of me turned upside-down during yoga poses. And then showed regret to certain Jamaican gentlemen by returning their broad smiles as soon as he understood that they meant him no harm. Something that some humans cannot do.

He also, interestingly, eschewed the gender stereotypes that so many humans get hung up on. While being the manliest of males—60 pounds of pure muscle and much-admired by the ladies—he felt free to show his feminine side. Even as a raucous adolescent, he became maternal when visiting the two-year-old next door. Even obeying his orders. Even when there were hot dogs involved. All little Michael had to do was say, “Sit,” then, “No, Zeke, no.” He was similarly sensitive to me. While always showing how much he missed me when I returned from work, he then sat back and assessed the situation. And altered his behavior substantially depending on whether I was seriously stressed by the impossible search for a parking space near our Back Bay apartment, preoccupied with the report that I had to complete by the morning or relieved that it was Friday and ready for fun.

Memory of this was his way of reaffirming for me from wherever he is now that we are both mammals. And saying if I accepted that, I could not only become a part something more sympatico than how my own species sometimes seems but also escape its sexist connotations. Instead of identifying as a HOMO sapien or a huMAN or a member of MANkind, I could proudly proclaim that I belonged to a clade characterized by mammary glands. Which, incidentally, both males and females possess. As Randy Laist well knew when he wrote “Why I Identify as Mammal” for The New York Times. Of course, that puts Laist and me in a clade with rodentssloths and sheep. But since we are in the silly season known as the presidential election in the States, I am sure that we are no worse off than if we had simply stuck to humans.

Now, know that this might not work for you. Wesley J. Smith, after all,  wrote a spirited rebuttal, pointing out that Laist—”of course!“—was an English professor, and published it in—of course!—the National Review. But then try to enlarge your view in some other way. If you see yourself as a Millennial, try seeing yourself as a mortal so as not to insulate yourself from people who are closer to Death’s door. If you see yourself as a Republican, try seeing yourself as a US citizen so as not to be in a position to have to vote for someone who is repugnant to you come November. And, my dear native Latvians, try seeing yourselves as members of the United Nations, not just as NATO members, which is currently more convenient. And If you see yourself as a Christian, try seeing yourself as simply spiritual. Or a principled person. So as not to set yourself against Islam, the fastest growing religion in the world. Or agnostics, another rapidly growing group.

And if you have done all that and more, give identifying as mammal another go. Not so that you feel compelled to stop the slaughter of your fellow mammals to fill your stomach, which makes some good come of our inevitable demise, but so as to limit the torture that has become pervasive on factory farms. And then, when you are really ready, expand your identity further so that you become part of the planet, then the Universe. Because that, ultimately, is what you are.

The Nativists and Me

Some common seed-dispersal systems. (Illustration: David Plunkert)

Certain aspects of spring make me squirm. Particularly those related to advice on what I should and should not plant. Even what I should actively eradicate. Insistent voices and ubiquitous manifestos inform me that I must limit myself to native plants—that is, those established before European and African settlement—and wage war on all others. Which you might think is mere hyperbole on my part, but that is not so. The desire to make my local environment resemble what it might have looked like before 1492, when Columbus crossed the ocean blue, is what drives the definition of “native” in a booklet just published by the Maryland Native Plant Society. Which makes me wonder why this document was not produced by a printing press, invented circa 1440, instead of some digital device available only recently.

On the surface, I have at least two problems with people who espouse this sort of nativism. First, I am not convinced that they love nature nearly as much as they claim. If they did, they would readily embrace an essential aspect: constant change. Which is particularly important these days since phenomena such as global warming are rapidly accelerating the rate of this change. Meaning that trying to make current vegetation resemble that of previous centuries, where the natural and man-made environment was decidedly different, is maladaptive, at best. If they must mess with Mother Nature, they might better ask what her future needs were and attempt to meet them. Second, they do not seem to understand the inherent futility of their efforts. Both plants and animals, including the human kind, are set up to spread. The salient difference between flora and fauna is that the former relocate by more subtle means. Say, through seed dispersal. And between autochory—most notably the use of gravity—and allochory—wind, water, animals and humans—them flora sure do get around. Of course, much of seed dissemination is polychorous, which makes those nativists that come down particularly hard on the human-vectored sort of dispersal come across as somewhat silly.

Deep down, there is another problem that I do not bring up with such nativists. Much like my father, who seemed to fear for his manhood each spring that my mother made him to lop off tree limbs and prune bushes, I—a non-native Marylander (here by way of Latvia, Austria, Germany, Michigan, Massachusetts and Alabama), a merely naturalized US citizen and a former displaced person—fear for my place in my present community, my adopted country and even the world as a whole at the start of each growing season. Because, invariably, I get sucked into discussions with those finding the likes of the multiflora roses and butterfly bushes on my riverbank offensive and then wonder just how they find me. You see, there is a political form of nativism that seeks to preserve or reinstate status for established inhabitants against the claims of newcomers and seems disturbingly similar to that of those seeking to reinstate some prior status of the riverbank.

The arguments used are certainly similar. And similarly questionable. They say, for instance, that the trouble with non-natives is that there are no natural predators to keep them in check. And that unchecked growth decreases biodiversity. Try telling that to our native beavers, who indiscriminately destroy the Japanese cherry trees, non-native but beloved, planted along the Tidal Basin and the native dogwood that I planted in memory of my mother. And to those humans, presumably native-born, who attack immigrants in our area and made life miserable for my family and five-year-old me when we arrived in Michigan. If diversity really is at issue, those nativists would beat on beavers, not butterfly bushes, which beavers blessedly leave alone. But they do not, any more than the other sort fights anti-immigration groups. Most would readily revert to 1965, when white people still comprised 85 percent of the population rather than rejoice that non-Hispanic whites will no no longer represent the majority by 2044.

Of course, nativists rarely seem to commit to reinstating the status of all plants or all people to anywhere near that of pre-colonial days. Few, for instance, show any interest in pushing for legislation restoring the status of Indian tribes. Even those who refer to them as “Native Americans” and admire their artifacts. And while dandelions are anointed by the Maryland Biodiversity Project and touted by the University of Maryland as nutrient-rich plants used by said Native Americans to treat a range of disorders, not many refrain from ripping those pretty but pesky natives from their lawns. Much like my mother in Michigan, who sought total annihilation as my father and and I stood by and smirked. (Monoculture lawns seem to be suburbanites’ sacred sites. When I worked in Washington, a colleague from posh Potomac said in all seriousness, “We have been invaded by violets.”)

Undogmatic by nature, I was pleased to learn that organizations such as the The Nature Conservancy now take a nuanced stance. Altering the orthodoxy that assumes that non-natives are guilty until proven innocent, points such as the following serve as rational replacements:

  1. Non-natives can have devastating impacts, especially on islands,
  2. But they can also provide much-needed habitats for endangered species and be the best bet for erosion and mudslide control.
  3. Trade restrictions and border controls have reduced the flow of known pests, and some eradication programs have succeeded
  4. But millions of federal dollars have been spent without any measurable impact on either biodiversity or ecosystem function.
  5. It is important to protect against certain highly invasive species
  6. But novel ecosystems are increasingly common and, going forward, will need to be viewed as part of the total ecosystem.

Not only are these points applicable to, say, my multiflora roses, which were, in fact, introduced to control erosion on riverbanks such as mine, but also to non-native humans such as me. Substitute some words in a Conservancy statement, and you will see. “Science-based conservation cannot be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views of good and evil” any more than evidence-based immigration or refugee policy can be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views .  .  .

The mixed blessings of introduced species are well-illustrated by the Columbian Exchange, that widespread transfer of not only people but also plants and animals and microbes, not to mention culture and science and technology, that took place between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres as a consequence of the colonization and trade that followed from that somewhat ill-considered trip Columbus took. While non-native diseases certainly contributed to precipitous declines in indigenous populations, benefits accrued, as well. There was, for instance, no honey bee here back then. The same one that now is undergoing colony collapse and causing us to wring our hands about how we will feed ourselves in the future without this important pollinator. We probably will figure out a way, since humans—arguably the most invasive species of all—and ecosystems do eventually adapt.

Meanwhile, I will continue to root for those dastardly multiflora roses and butterfly bushes since those beleaguered bees sure do like feasting on their flowers. And that useless grassy hillside—it could barely be called a lawn—behind my house that I turned into some semblance of  a rain garden, full of non-native shrubs and small trees selected not only for their shade tolerance but also because they are not too tasty to our native white-tailed deer, who eat everything in sight. And those non-native lettuces and carrots that I plan to plant in our community garden. And the native tobacco plants, but only when they are restricted to the colonial garden, co-located with our own at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, which is dedicated to the first African-American man of science and son of a former slave.

I will also continue to support the Syrian refugees, not only because I was a refugee once myself but also because I cannot imagine how I would be able write another word without the elegant digital devices developed by a man whose biological father hailed from Homs. And the migrants who enter the country from the south, not only because part of the States once belonged to those below the border but also because one is my next-door neighbor. And to oppose those nativists who believe that closing borders and building walls will somehow “make America great again.” Not only because I cannot countenance their irrational hatred but also because they ignore their own history. Particularly the part where the Columbian Exchange and subsequent waves of immigration carried the seeds of greatness to their shores.

 

Some non-native plants, animals and microbes. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)
Some non-native plants, animals and microbes. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)