Category Archives: The Arts

Lost Lost Lost

Jonas Mekas, a displaced person in the States. (Photo: Boris Lehman)

“I grew up in paradise,” Brooklyn-based Johas Mekas says, referring to the Biržai area on the LithuanianLatvian border. “Then the Soviets came and they brought Hell.” That precipitated a series of events that turned him into a displaced person, brought him to the United States and made him the filmmaker—often called “the godfather of American avant-garde cinema“—and all-around artist he is today.

Within weeks of his arrival in 1949, he borrowed enough money to buy his first Bolex 16mm camera and began recording his immigrant experience. One result was the 1976 film Lost Lost Lost, which a New York Times reviewer described as “one of the finest” among his many achievements, “a beautifully constructed diary film . . . At once rough-hewn and delicate.” On his site, Mekas describes the film as follows:

The period I am dealing with in these six reels was a period of desperation, of attempts to desperately grow roots into the new ground, to create new memories. In these six painful reels I tried to indicate how it feels to be in exile, how I felt in those years. These reels carry the title Lost Lost Lost, the title of a film myself and my brother wanted to make in 1949, and it indicates the mood we were in, in those years. It describes the mood of a Displaced Person who hasn’t yet forgotten the native country but hasn’t gained a new one. The sixth reel is a transitional reel where we begin to see some relaxation, where I begin to find moments of happiness. New life begins. What happens later, you’ll have to see the next installment of reels . . .

Since we are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since World War II and many seem to be confused and conflicted about what America should do about the masses of displaced people, I would like to show how the nation that allowed me in during 1949 has benefited from some of my fellow refugees. So, I will let Mekas tell you his story, as he did a few years ago, and show you around his Williamsburg studio:

 

 

Note: There are clips from Lost Lost Lost available on DailyMotion and YouTube, and the entire film is can be purchased on DVD from his website.

Body Language

Twisted Sister’s Jay Jay French and Dee Snider performing at the 2014 See-Rock Festival in Unterpremstätten, Austria. (Photo: Alfred Nitsch)

Six months ago, I nearly died. My gallbladder succumbed to necrosis, gangrene spread through the surrounding area and I slipped into sepsis. No one—least of all me—understood what occurred until it was almost too late. You see, my body failed to use the accepted communication mode: intense localized pain. So even with a substantially elevated white cell count and the inability to keep down so much as a mango sliver, then even an ice chip, it seemed to suggest that I was merely run down and would be fine once I simplified my schedule.

So even after the telling ultrasound results came in and my physician booked me a spiffy private room in the surgical ward of the local Hopkins hospital’s new pavilion, it refused to act like someone sick. And I unquestioningly did the same.  I not only drove myself there but also stopped for gas because I was concerned about fuel-line freeze. Even enjoyed the bemused look on the clerk’s face when I said, “I have a reservation” and he, after extensive checking, said, “Well, so you do.” Which I only came to fully appreciate after learning that admissions to that ward mainly originate in the ER or elsewhere in the hospital.

The seriousness of my situation started to sink in during the subsequent days, when I was kept on IV fluids, nutrients and antibiotics—nothing by mouth—and simultaneously subjected to endless invasive tests, all of which was required before my body was deemed fit for surgery. Which, in contrast, occurred with surprising suddenness on a Sunday afternoon. And resulted not only in the two tiny holes that a laparoscopic cholecystectomy required but also in a gruesome gash across most of my midriff. “This is the worst case that I have ever seen,” my surprisingly personable surgeon said as I smiled sweetly.

Which, this time, was incongruent, since my body had started to voice real distress the previous day. At first, it only emitted a series of nearly inaudible whimpers as I lay shivering in the dark recovery room. That soon turned into uncontrollable sobbing when no one came to so much as lay a comforting hand on my shoulder. But once I woke in my own nice room, where I had taken a seasoned day nurse’s advice to pre-operatively tune my TV to the channel that not only played “classical” music but also showed soothing nature scenes cleverly synchronized with the time of day, I assumed that the worst was over. My caring, competent night nurse certainly gave that impression, enquiring only about whether my body had yet managed to pass gas.

As soon as my vital signs were stable, I was transferred to a remote nursing and rehabilitation center that was touted as top-rated. By a rough ride along dark roads—commercial medical transport vehicles resemble WWII field ambulances—that my body did not like in the least. But preferred to the unceremonious welcome it received, which featured the medical equivalent of a prison strip search, where every inch of my skin, every orifice was rigorously examined. Not for my benefit, I learned from the laconic explanation, but to protect the facility from future liability. It took forever since each bruise—and there were lots from all those anticoagulant injections—was carefully measured with a concentric-ring template of questionable cleanliness.

Still, I sought signs of humanity in the scowling male nurse who had just handled my sore body as though it were merely a slab of meat.

“Where are you from,” I asked.

“Africa,” he said.

“Africa is a huge continent,” I said. “Where in Africa?”

Nigeria,” he said.

“Americans usually do not bother to ask,” he added.

I wanted to tell him that I, too, was foreign-born. That, as a former war refugee, I maybe knew more about what he had experienced than most native-born Americans. But my body desperately wanted to be left alone. So I switched to insouciance, texting my primary physician, “Help! I am trapped in a chintz nightmare,” referring the prevalence of floral-patterned materials wherever I tried to rest my troubled eyes.

That only worked until morning. Once I had a chance to systematically survey my surroundings, both my body and I shrank back. You see, nothing there resembled the microcosm that I had previously admired in hospitals, where people of many races, nationalities and religions worked together in seeming harmony. Here, everyone charged with the care of the patients’ bodies—from physicians to nurses to nurse’s aides—had some degree of dark skin. And most had strong foreign accents, as well. The resulting fear—after failing to find other explanations—was that management had cynically selected only recent immigrants. Not for their qualifications but because they—as my DP parents once had—would work for the lowest allowable wages.

Strangely, we withdrew even more from the patients, predominantly white and proficient in English. While some staff, at least, seemed to sense the precariousness of their situation, most of the patients appeared blithely indifferent to theirs. Take my my roommate—please. A frail old lady with signs of dementia, she donned her perfectly pressed khakis and pretty hot-pink cable-knit sweater, applied her makeup and had her hair and nails done at the in-house salon. The fact that she had to sleep with a bed alarm activated to keep her from wandering at night seemed to cause her little concern. Each time she stirred even slightly, the damned thing woke only me. All I could do was press the buzzer and wait for my aide. And she was never in a hurry.

The manner in which we distanced ourselves initially differed.  My body made the first move, appalled that showers were limited to twice a week at night. It harangued the day nurse, and he gave in, getting me daily morning showers by re-classifying them as “occupational therapy,” much to the chagrin of the aide. Then, it categorically refused to dress, opting to pull two fresh hospital gowns—one laced in the front covered by another laced in the back, which served as a robe—over my clean anatomy. And rather than dealing with the discomfort of rolling a wheelchair out to the dining room, it opted to take meals by its bed. Even though they all consequently arrived cold.

Then, it became more emphatic. It took the dry omelette and greasy sausage, along with the limp toast and reconstituted juice that it had reluctantly ingested and spewed it out in an impressive spray. After surveying the effect with pride, it focused on my other end, with even more dramatic results. Thus, in contrast to what had occurred prior to my hospitalization, there was no question that the correct communication mode was used. My body screamed,”I am seriously ill.” My nice new roommate, who had no need of bed alarms, understood. She asked to be moved out immediately, which promptly occurred. But still the staff did not take me seriously. “It’s just your antibiotic,” my day nurse said. Until 18 hours later, when I offered the night nurse a clear choice: “Either you contact the on-call doctor now or I call 911.”

That caught management’s attention. By the time that the Director of Nursing arrived the next day, I had compiled a long list of complaints dating back to my arrival. Which was supported the following day by the fact that a widespread gastroenteritis outbreak was underway. Suddenly, there were hushed staff meetings and aides disinfecting everything with the same efficacy that, no doubt, led to the problem in the first place. And the facility was closed to new admissions. So I never got another roommate. But all of that came too late to placate either my body or me. With the help of an aluminum contraption—I could not bring myself to call it a “walker”—we engaged in an undertaking to essentially turn me into an aging Twisted Sister. Soon, I was stomping around singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” albeit sotto voce.

To enhance the effect, it refused to style the hair that was assiduously washed and blow-dried each day, allowing the ill-considered asymmetrical cut that I had been growing out to form a crazed gray frame for my face. And shed the facility-provided slipper-socks that went so well with the facility-provided knee-length gowns for the ankle-length black leather boots that I had previously kept in the closet. At last, I had a gut-level feel for why certain musicians looked the way that they did. This cut-up gut was fed up with what those who sought refuge in the States had to stomach to survive. And how it would only get worse once forced to contend with a health care system—and a society, for that matter—that sought to segregated its seniors. Some form of external expression was required. And the uglier, the better.

The backdrop proved to be perfect. In moderate Maryland, ice-storms of rare ferocity raged. (The February of my confinement was the Baltimore area’s second coldest on record. ) Seen through the facility’s wall-to-wall windows and juxtaposed with the stifling heat inside, it had an appropriately apocalyptic feel. Which was supported by incessant TV and social media updates. Images of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh being burned to death in a cage, American hostage Kayla Mueller being confirmed dead and hundreds of Assyrian hostages being seized, all at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, assaulted our senses. I could see how much of this might be combined, with me as the star, in a stunning music video.

Alas, those in my audience capable of appreciating this vision were few in number. One was an Albanian immigrant who had become a physician when opportunities to pursue her career in public health had been closed to her here. She honestly addressed my concerns. And not only confirmed that I, and subsequently others, had been sickened by the facility but was also able to intelligently discuss the barbaric oppression that both our native lands had experienced at the hands of the former Soviet Union, which now, in a different form, was playing out in the Middle East and rapidly expanding its reach.

“ISIL is as much a threat to civilization as Stalin once was,” I said.

“There was one good thing about communism, though,” she said.

“It removed religion as a valid excuse for committing atrocities.”

(While religion was banned under all communist rule,  Albania, which is Islamic and Christian, is now—by constitution—a secular country.)

With such limited success, the only option was to take my body and leave. Which was not as easy as you might think. We had to perform all sorts of stunts to prove we could carry out the “activities of daily living.” (We could not, but the staff was easy enough to fool.) Once home with the aluminum contraption, my body learned to negotiate treacherous sidewalks and stairs, then drive me where I needed to be. To more doctor’s appointments than you could imagine—those tests had revealed new, unrelated problems—and to physical therapy, from which I transitioned to Gentle Yoga for Tranquility, which, at least, is doing my body some good. The rest of me, alas, lags far behind. This piece, for example, is the first thing that I have written in six months.

Note: I do not ascribe to Cartesian dualism, knowing enough neuroscience to find fault with basic tenets.  However, I must admit that at times like this the phenomenology is such that the body seems to have a mind of its own.

My Cousin in England

My cousin Juris Jurģis (second from left) with his wife Enid (far left), his son Andreis (the bridegroom) and his daughter Anna (second from right).

My cousin in England died this December. I hope that he went to Heaven, a place that I assume was more real to him than it is to me. I had always wanted to ask him if that was so. To discuss religion, both seriously and satirically, as I had with my father, with whom he had always been great friends. Both had studied theology in college—my father at the University of Latvia, my cousin at Oxford University—and both were not only spiritual but also worldly and literate. And had a great sense of humor. Only somehow I never got around to it, and now it is too late. And I am so sorry but, nevertheless, know that this is how it often seems to go with many other displaced people.

You see, much of my family was displaced in 1944, when the Soviet Army occupied Latvia for the second time. I was only about one month old and Juris only about 17 years old. But while I had my parents and maternal grandmother with me, Juris was on his own. Eventually, my family and I ended up in the United States and Juris ended up in England, reunited with my father’s sister Līdija. By the time that my parents, my then husband and I visited Juris in 1973, he was a Latvian minister living with his new family in a pleasant parish house in Leicester and the recently widowed Līda, a retired dentist, was living in London. And proud that at age 70 she had not only given up smoking (“Joost une leetle poof,” she said, stealing my cigarette) but also learned how to cook (“Joost like chemistry, no?”).

Of course, I was aware of Juris well before then. His work with the Latvian church took him to the States. And before that, there were the stories. The first one that I remember—no doubt increasingly embellished—went something like this: Juris arrived in England as a young man and worked digging ditches. One scorching day while he was shirtless—all that manual labor and those food shortages had given him a chiseled physique—an elegant lady driving, say, a Bentley pulled over and asked if he might like to relax a bit and partake of some refreshment. That certainly seemed preferable to what he was doing, so he readily agreed. Once situated on a sofa in her palatial manor house, he was able to recover enough to wander over to the grand piano. “Do you know what this is?” the lady asked. Whereupon Juris sat down, raised the keyboard cover and played, say, the start of Schumann’s last sonata. And then politely took his leave.

Our visit produced equally memorable stories. One involved an actual Bentley. We were at Līda’s house. After the roast beef—which, incidentally, slid to the kitchen floor on its way to the serving platter, no one but Līda, my mother and me being any the wiser—the vodka came out. And well after that, my then husband and I decided to accompany another of my relatives, a striking woman of a certain age who, as a beautiful young refugee working at the Harrods cosmetics counter, met a famous British comedian whose name I can no longer recall. So, in the dead of night, we lay back in her luxurious car as she drove with the sort of speed and skill that was remarkable even for one less inebriated the 80 some miles to Broadstairs, where she and the entertainer shared a house high on the chalk cliffs above the sea.

The plan was for Juris to arrive the next day with my parents and changes of clothes. Five of us would then return to London, where he had procured tickets for a performance of The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Which would have worked well had he also owned a Bentley, not something befitting an immigrant minister. Which was not only particularly small but also poorly maintained. And broke down somewhere along the M2. So we had to hitch a ride with a stranger, board a painfully slow train, transfer to the Tube and trek past countless Covent Garden produce carts at  to reach our seats. All with my mother and me in high heels and long gowns.

That was how the visit with him mainly went, with an emphasis on the arts over religion, not to mention good food and drink and lots of laugher. Juris set the tone by saying that we would be fools to waste a sunny Sunday sitting inside listening to his sermon. So, instead, he dropped us off at Ann Hathaway’s cottage, where we enjoyed the delphinia, hollyhocks and dahlias in the extensive gardens and got our fill of Shakespearean lore. He also took us to his beloved Oxford—before or after that, I do not know—where we got an insider’s look at the libraries, living quarters and dining halls and then joined tourists and townspeople for a pint or two in various public houses.

He did manage to fit in a trip to Coventry Cathedral. Since I was never one for touring famous churches and, in fact, often felt apologetic for interfering with those there to pray, my expectations were low. I was not prepared for the stark juxtaposition of the old and the new. As we walked from the roofless remains of the old church, which had been bombed during World War II and wisely left unrestored, to the the new building, constructed of the same sandstone, I experienced a surprising reconciliation of my own war-torn past with my incongruent present. And as we entered, I was not only astounded at how much I was moved by the modern architecture and art but also by the sheer scale of it all. I wandered around in a daze, feeling that I had suddenly become nothing more than an insignificant speck in a vast, mysterious universe. And that this was incredibly comforting.

Remembering how I felt, I now wonder whether the talk that I had hoped to have with Juris had not actually occurred on that day.

For more on Juris, see my essay “Reconsidering Sentiment.”

Reconsidering Sentiment

My father and I build a snowman on the front lawn of the Ethel Street house that always occupied a soft spot in my heart. (Photo: Elsa Jurgis)

When I was growing up in Grand Rapids, my father liked to tell a tale about two men and an ass. Maybe it came from the Bible. Maybe it was Latvian folklore. Maybe he made it up. He was known to do that sort of thing, saying he was folk as much as anyone else. At any rate, no matter what combination the men came up with—one riding, one walking; both riding; both walking—someone always came along to criticize it. “Why own an ass if one of you has to walk?” And so on.

When I recall that tale these days, it is often in the context of my writing. You see, my stories have been criticized for eliciting too little emotion. And I suspect that if I ever wrote anything eliciting too much emotion, I would be criticized for that, too. But I always conclude that I would rather be accused of being too cold than of being too sentimental, so I do not put myself in a position to experience the latter, completely forgetting the point of my father’s story.

But even following my own logic, that makes little sense. If my response to one form of criticism (see “A Formal Feeling Comes”) is that shutting down is what people do in many of the situations—often involving war and displacement—that I portray, then I should be willing to respond to the other form, as well. Because there clearly are cases where such stressors have exactly the opposite effect. Which means that I need to risk telling stories that evoke strong sentiment. Even stories that could be considered to be sentimental.

One such story could come from the time when we were exiled in the Alps and my father had found work at a hydroelectric dam. Unfortunately, he was not suited for much more than a desk job, so he fell the equivalent of several stories and, luckily, landed on a ledge. Once he recovered, he looked for other work, but there was none to be found in post-war Austria. Since my mother was still employed, the decision was made that he should study law at the University of Innsbruck instead. So he packed pen and paper into one of his few remaining possessions—a fine leather briefcase—and took a train.

During this time, I was a toddler who was rapidly outgrowing her only shoes. Since there were none to be had in our area, my mother traced my feet and sent the outlines off to my father’s nephew, who had fled to England as a teenager. By the time that my new shoes arrived, they no longer fit. So my father took his briefcase to a cobbler and had him make a pair from the leather. Much the way—less the reciprocity—that the husband and wife in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” gave up prized possessions to give each other Christmas gifts.

The closest that I ever came to writing anything along those lines was “Ethel Street,” which was about the first place in the States my family lived after leaving our sponsor. While I always recall it with great fondness, I could not get as far as the first (and only) draft until two things occurred:  (1) I read James Joyce’s story “Araby,” which starts with the description of a quiet street and ends with the destruction of an idealized vision, and (2) I mentioned to my mother, then 90 years old, that the Ethel Street house was where I was the happiest and she responded with considerable amazement, saying, “That was the terrible place where the man upstairs beat his dog.”

Which gave me something cynical—and publishable—rather than sentimental. Perhaps even something perceptive about how the same experience can be so different for a child and an adult. Just not the story that I had wanted to write. Or that my father would have enjoyed, because he came from a generation that thought O. Henry was a wonderful writer. Of course, he thought the same of Anton Chekhov. Who is said to have said—I cannot find the original source—something like, “If you wish to move your reader, write more coldly.” Which brings me back to that tale of the two men and the ass.

Note: My father died nearly two decades ago, but I still celebrate his birthday, which is today. Sadly, this December 17 is also the day that the cousin who sent me the shoes is being buried. One day I will succeed in writing stories with the sort of sentiment that both would have enjoyed.