Posts from — December 2013
Kyrgyzstan in Transition
Photographs and Essay ©
by Marsha Levine
Kyrgyzstan, one of the post-Soviet, Central Asian states, is located in the heart of Asia. Landlocked, almost entirely mountainous, surrounded by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, Kyrgyzstan is not a place found on most Westerners’ mental maps. More’s the pity, not only because it is staggeringly beautiful and culturally rich but also because, as a state finding its way through the post-Soviet labyrinth, it is deeply thought provoking. But to do it justice we need to do more than to redraw the boundaries of our mental maps. In this short photo-essay I am attempting to challenge how we think about such faraway places.
During autumn 2007, I visited Barskoon, a village on Lake Issyk-Kul, sitting astride the Silk Route in northern Kyrgyzstan. This particular trip was occasioned by an opportunity to see ‘traditional’ horse games – at the “At Chabysh” festival. Kyrgyz horse festivals, are similar to those held throughout Central and Inner Asia – for example, the Mongolian Naadam. These events mainly comprise traditional sports, including horse games, wrestling, archery, as well as eagle hunting demonstrations along with traditional music performances, poetry recitations, and sales of craft goods and food.
During my week in Barskoon, I stayed at two guesthouses. My very basic Russian and occasional access to an interpreter allowed me to learn a little about my hosts who belonged to one extended family. Although the people of the Issyk-Kul region are mostly dependent upon agricultural activities, especially livestock husbandry, the adults in my host families had a rather wide range of jobs. One worked in a microcredit office. Another was a mine worker at the nearby Kumtor gold mine. His wife, formerly a school teacher, besides taking care of their children, now managed one of the guesthouses. With other local families they were very actively involved in the restoration and re-opening of the village kindergarten which had closed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the village does have electricity, indoor plumbing in Barskoon, as in the rest of rural Kyrgyzstan, is rare. Our hosts kept poultry and horses in their yards, rather than flowers. The village streets were tidy but unpaved. The houses were clean and well cared for. The children I saw seemed to be bright and healthy. For all our cultural ignorance, our hosts treated us with kind hospitality. However, there was another side to all this and, ever since that visit, I have been trying to reconcile what I saw with what I heard.
My fellow guests, all Europeans, were also in Barskoon for the horse festival. Most seemed to have been involved in development work in Kyrgyzstan for a number of years. Some worked for international NGOs or were University academics.
From the discussion at dinner, it quickly became clear that, remote as Barskoon seemed to be, it is locked into the world economy – and into the new ‘Great Game’, with East and West jockeying for power and resources. Moreover, surrounded by the breathtaking majesty of the Tien Shan mountains, life here in Barskoon is very harsh for its rural population – and much harsher in villages off the tourist track. I discovered in 2007 that Kyrgyzstan, besides being one of the world’s poorest countries, is on a major route for narcotics trafficked from Afghanistan to China, Russia and Europe, and that both government corruption and ‘clan’ politics ensured that international aid didn’t always reach its intended destination. The picture my fellow guests presented was wholly negative and I had the sense that, as far as they were concerned, the Kyrgyzstani people were subjects rather than individuals.
The western media exploit and exaggerate the distance between the contradictory pictures of Kyrgyzstan. On the one hand, a quick search on the internet throws up a faltering education system, high unemployment, high adult and infant mortality rates, child poverty and failure to thrive, bride abduction, organised crime, ethnic disputes, human rights and press freedom issues, electoral corruption, ethnic tension, environmental degradation, fears of religious fundamentalism and so on.
On the other hand, aside from a very few tourists, most Westerners’ only experience of Central Asia is through the medium of television programmes presented by attractive young Westerners, usually celebrities, who know little about the cultures on display, but who can show off their riding skills. The rural people – with their felt tents and livestock – dress up and, against the vastness of the steppe and mountains, perform for the cameras. It’s all very picturesque and the locals could, for the most part, be living in the Middle Ages. The pictures presented are not entirely false but they are so exceedingly superficial as to be grossly misleading, portraying a passive, static society, disconnected from history and living in the past.
Although neither of these perspectives is entirely false, both are powerfully biased by the media: television, newspapers, and, increasingly, the internet. Taken together, the pictures they paint are so contradictory that it is sometimes hard to believe that they could be referring to the same place. There is little or no attempt to be even-handed or objective. So, why should this be the case? Why should it be such hard work to find information about Kyrgyzstan that does not portray its people either as villains, hapless victims, or quaintly lost in the Middle Ages? I take the view that, consciously or unconsciously, these pictures are designed to serve various economic and political agendas.
In 1980 Edward Said wrote:
“From at least the end of the eighteenth century until our own day, modern Occidental reactions to Islam have been dominated by a type of thinking that may still be called Orientalist. The general basis of Orientalist thought is an imaginative geography dividing the world into two unequal parts, the larger and “different” one called the Orient, the other, also known as our world, called the Occident or the West…. Insofar as Islam has always been seen as belonging to the Orient, its particular fate within the general structure of Orientalism has been to be looked at with a very special hostility and fear.” [http://www.thenation.com/article/islam-through-western-eyes#]
Although Said’s main focus was on western Asia, his words are relevant to Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia in general – including the West’s misjudgement of the nature of Central Asian Islam in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fact is, it suits the economic, political and military interests of the western great powers to see the people in this part of the world as backward, incompetent and corrupt. History is brushed aside, no need to understand the situation on the ground or even to talk to the people. All you need to do is to apply the standard template – dating from the early 19th century – to 21st century Kyrgyzstan, for example, and that is enough. Well, of course, it is not enough. That old Orientalist model was never meant to reflect the reality of the East. Its purpose was to justify the domination and exploitation of the East by the great powers of the time.
When you read this, you might well say: well, that’s a bit over the top. But I don’t think so. My evidence is the disconnection between what I saw and experienced during my short visit to Barskoon in 2007 and what I heard from the local people, as opposed to what I have read and seen in the media – particularly on the internet (in newspapers, internet articles and features, books, papers in academic journals and so on) since then. The world I experienced – as portrayed in my photographs – was quite different from the world I have observed in the media and also, apparently, from that experienced by some of the other Western visitors in Barskoon – even when we were sitting in the same room.
It is not easy to get accurate, up-to-date information about Kyrgyzstan: what with language difficulties, our flawed education systems, and problems obtaining access to information during the transition from the Soviet era to the present – not to mention judgement calls on the reliability of available sources. Moreover, although some useful work has been produced by western scholars, much of the most interesting research has been published by young Central Asian academics, who have benefited from their first-hand knowledge of their country, its people and its past, coupled with the more open education systems they have been exposed to since independence – both in Central Asia and abroad.
An autumnal view of lake Issyk-Kul with the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains in the background.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071101-2871_tobarskoonissykkul.jpg]30Horses and cattle grazing along the road to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan)
Horses and cattle grazing along the road from Bishkek to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan). The Tien Shan mountains are in the background.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071101-2878_tobarskoonissykkul.jpg]30The road from Bishkek to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan)
A beautiful autumn day on the road from Bishkek to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan). Following one branch of the ancient Silk Route, this road is in the Issyk-Kul lake basin. The Tien Shan mountains are in the background.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071102-2927_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20An elderly Kyrgyz gentleman at the Barskoon horse festival
This elderly Krygyz gentleman is a spectator at the horse festival in Barskoon (near Lake Issyk-Kul). Most of the spectators are locals - men, women and children. However, there are a few visitors, mostly NGO workers.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071101-2860_tobarskoonissykkul.jpg]30Lady tending her roadside shop (Kyrgyzstan)
This Kyrgyzstani lady is minding her small shop. It is located next to lake Issyk-Kul, alongside the road that runs from Bishkek to Barskoon.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071102-2930_barskoonissykkul-ed2.jpg]10Kyrgyz boys and donkeys at the Barskoon horse festival
These Kyrgyz boys and their donkeys are spectators at a horse festival in Barskoon village next to Lake Issyk Kul. Besides horse races and games, the festival has eagle hunting displays, traditional music, epic poetry, crafts and food.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071102-2942_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Kyrgyz horsemen at the Barskoon horse festival
Horsemen at the Barskoon horse festival. Lake Issyk-Kul is behind them and in the background the Terskoy Alatau (Tien Shan) mountains, capped with glaciers and clouds.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071104-3003_barskoonissykkul.jpg]10Riders at the Barskoon Horse Festival (Kyrgyzstan)
These riders are getting ready for the next horse race of the day in Barskoon next to Lake Issyk-Kul. The snow-capped Tien Shan mountains provide a majestic backdrop for the race.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071104-3088_barskoonissykkul.jpg]10Kyrgyz rider picking up coins from the ground
This Kyrgyz rider has just snatched a weight wrapped in red cloth from the ground and then threw it into the air. This traditional sport is called Tyin Enmei.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3231_barskoonissykkul.jpg]10Owner making sure his horse gets home safely from Barskoon
This horse is being taken home on a trailor, pulled by a 4-wheel drive vehicle, after the Barskoon horse games. He is carefully wrapped in felt for protection against potholed roads.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3238_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20A view of the Tien Shan mountains from Barskoon village, on the shore of lake Issyk-Kul (Kyrgyzstan)
Barskoon village is located on the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, just north of the snow-capped Terskoy Alatau mountains, a branch of the Tien Shan range. The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, but the widespread poverty is a huge challenge.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3259_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Autumn in Barskoon (Issyk-Kul Oblast, Kyrgyzstan)
Two girls are sitting in a Barskoon village lane having a chat. It's a sunny autumn day - almost Idyllic. But, poverty is a real issue in Kyrgyzstan. How much can natural beauty be a consolation?[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3293_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Kyrgyz boy with male turkey (in Barskoon)
This young Kyrgyz boy is posing the family turkey to help me get a good photo. We are in the yard of his family guesthouse in Barskoon, on the south shore of lake Issyk-Kul.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3305_barskoonissykkul.jpg]30The Barskoon family whose house I stayed in.
This Barskoon family lets rooms in their house to visitors. The wife was a teacher and is now helping other local families to refurbish the local elementary school. Her husband works for a local mining company.
Sitting, as it does, on the Silk Route, the region we now call Kyrgyzstan has always been subject to change – social, political, economic and religious. The most reliable historical (that is, written) records for this region, dating at least as far back as the as the 2nd century BC, depict a world in flux. Between the 6th century and the 20th century AD, the various peoples living in what is now Kyrgyzstan were subject, on occasion, to Turkic, Uighur, Mongol, Kazakh, Kalmyk, Manchu, Uzbek, Russian, Soviet and finally Kyrgyzstani rule. This is all very complicated, partly because of the highly mobile populations inhabiting this region over the past couple of millennia – at least.
Kyrgyzstan, as a geographical entity with fixed borders, did not exist until the 1920s, but the Kyrgyz people, as an ethnic and political entity did exist – in some sense. That is, people whose first language was Kyrgyz, whose customs are identified as Kyrgyz and who regarded themselves and their community as Kyrgyz, have lived within these borders for a considerable period of time. It is often said that the Kyrgyz people originally came from the Yenisei river region of south Siberia. This could be true, but what of the earlier inhabitants of this region, not to mention travellers and settlers following the ancient Silk Route. The history of Kyrgyzstan is both rich and complex; however, during the era of Russian and Soviet hegemony, it was impossible to carry out uncensored historical and archaeological research there. Since independence, a new generation of historians (including young Kyrgyzstani scholars) is finally able to explore the historical and archaeological sources (see Tchoroev 2002). Exciting new work is already coming out of this region.
It is important to acknowledge that Kyrgyzstan is still a multi-ethnic country. About 52% of the population is Kyrgyz and 20% Uzbek, with other minority groups including: Tatars, Dungans, Kazakhs, Uighurs, and Tajiks, as well as Russians, Ukrainians and Germans. Each of these groups has its own story, but all of these stories are somehow connected. Many are connected with the Soviet era, but not all. Such diversity, as well we all know, is a huge challenge whether we are talking about New York, Northern Ireland or Central Asia. In this essay I am focusing primarily on the mostly Kyrgyz Issyk-Kul region.
Even a brief glance at the religious history of Kyrgyzstan reveals a similarly complex picture. The earliest religious practices were animist or shamanist. There is plentiful archaeological and historical evidence that other religions – such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam – later travelled the Silk Route across Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, and into China. And Soviet atheism followed. Islam was adopted in stages. The Sunni tradition of the Hanafi school, a relatively moderate, tolerant form of Islam, was taken up earliest and with most conviction, by the settled people of south-western Kyrgyzstan (circa 8th to 15th centuries). During the 12th to the 19th centuries the nomadic pastoralists in the mountainous regions of northern Kyrgyzstan were gradually converted to Sufism, a relatively moderate and mystical form of Islam. Sufism appealed to the nomads because of its generally non-dogmatic, tolerant and syncretic approach, permitting incorporation of non-Islamic religious practices – from animism, shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity. As for some of the more remote parts of northern Kyrgyzstan, Islam was scarcely adopted when it was banned by the Bolsheviks in the early 20th century. Since declaring its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been undergoing an Islamic revival under its own terms, reviving Sufi – and other Islamic – traditions that it protected underground throughout the Soviet period.
Sufism is incompatible with the Wahhabi fundamentalism so feared by the West. The expectation that Kyrgyz Muslims would be vulnerable to fundamentalist Islam is something akin to ‘reds under the beds’ paranoia – mostly referable to the Western penchant for backing the wrong – and worst possible – political horse and then being caught off-guard – and terribly surprised – when it all goes wrong. Afghanistan being, of course, the perfect case in point (Williams 2003).
As Botoiarova points out: “Radicalization of Islam, if it ever takes place, will not be because of outside influence, but will be the result of discontent with economic hardships and inability of authorities to build a just society with democratic principles” (Botoiarova 2005, p 102). In spite of all the very real social, economic and political challenges faced by Kyrgyzstan, conditions there are not conducive to fundamentalist Islam.
HERDING DURING THE SOVIET ERA
So, why has Kyrgyzstan’s transition from ‘communism’ to ‘democracy’ been such hard work? As usual, history holds most of the answers. During the 19th century, Tsarist Russia brutally conquered and colonised Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan. The nomadic and semi-nomadic herders were forced off their lands, which were expropriated for settlement by Russian peasants. The herders’ attempts to regain access to their pasturelands were put down with great brutality. These conflicts continued into the Communist era when they were met with forced settlement, expropriation of herds, exile, cultural and religious repression, imprisonment, famine, starvation and so on – a familiar scenario accompanying the policies of collectivisation and de-kulakisation throughout the Soviet empire, especially during the 1930s.
The Soviet economic model was never sustainable for Kyrgyzstan, where extensive livestock husbandry (horses, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, yaks) has been the most important subsistence activity for hundreds or even thousands of years. Kyrgyzstan covers 191,800 sq km, most of which is mountainous; over 94% is higher than 1000 m above sea level; the average altitude is about 2630 metres. About 56% of the total area is agricultural land, of which about 87% is pastureland (Kerven et al, 2011). About 49% of the total area of Kyrgyzstan is used for grazing. In order to maximise the productivity of both herds and pasturage, herders must move their livestock seasonally – in steps, from the lowlands in winter to the high mountain meadows in summer. This kind of extensive livestock husbandry is incompatible with a permanently settled way of life.
Although the Soviet state, in the name of ideology, had been willing to kill millions of its own people; eventually it had to face the fact that, if it were to meet any economic targets at all, the Kyrgyz (and other Central Asian) herders forced onto collectivised farms would have to be allowed to return to some kind of semi-nomadic lifestyle. That is, while maintaining their permanent winter quarters in the lowlands, throughout the rest of the year they would move their herds in search of fresh grazing. It was not a return to their pre-Tsarist lifestyle, but they did succeed in rescuing the dysfunctional Soviet system from itself – demonstrating the herders resilience and adaptability once again (Kerven et al, 2012).
Finally in 1991, dragged down by its failed economic model, the Soviet state collapsed economically and politically. The resulting economic chaos and hardship extended throughout the Empire, except of course for the gangsters and ‘oligarchs’, whose wealth is, even now, hidden in tax shelters throughout the world. I bring this up because we – in the West – do not have entirely clean hands in this further economic disaster. The mass privatization of the USSR’s resources was supported by influential economists from Harvard, MIT, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other internationally important economic institutions (Hamm et al, 2012). It has led to hardship for many and untoward wealth for a few. It has resulted in a new Russian state, mostly known for its corruption, inequality, intolerance and poor human rights record.
Botoiarova (2005, 167-8) describes how the privatization process operated in Kyrgyzstan:
“After budgetary subsidies from Moscow were cut, Kyrgyzstan, which was heavily dependent on center [sic], was severely affected by economic crisis, with inflation reaching 1,200 percent in 1993…. Mass and rapid privatization and ‘shock therapy’ were perceived as the pillars for alleviating the country’s economic crisis. In 1991 the government announced a comprehensive privatization program…. Although, Kyrgyzstan’s privatization program is generally regarded as the most progressive in Central Asia, the implementation of the privatization process was complicated by the weak normative and legal bases and by difficulties in pricing since most of the privatized entities were sold well below value, often at symbolic prices.”
Little wonder then that Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the world.
THE NEW ORIENTALISM
My purpose in visiting Kyrgyzstan was to photograph local herders, horses and their way of life. Nothing more. However, in the week I was there I was struck by the disconnection between what I saw and what I heard. True to Orientalist form, Kyrgyzstan was portrayed as a threat, as quaint and exotic, or as a resource to exploit. In Barskoon itself, I stumbled across two examples of the new Orientalism in relation to the Kumtor Gold mine and the “At Chabysh” horse festival itself.
Kumtor Gold Mine
During my short visit in Barskoon I heard nothing about the Kumtor open-pit mine, in spite of its being the world’s second largest gold mine and its situation near the village. However innumerable references popped up as soon as I started researching this essay. Although I only have space here for the briefest outline of a long-running story, I think that even a short discussion of Kumtor is relevant to the basic premise of this piece.
Because the mine, owned and run by a Kyrgyz (Kyrgyzaltyn)-Canadian (Cameco Corporation) syndicate, generates up to 10% of Kyrgyzstan’s GNP, it is seen by some as vital to the country’s economy. However, even a brief look at its history begs innumerable questions about its Canadian management and international backers – including, for example, the World Bank Group, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the Canadian Export Development Corporation (EDC). More generally, it focuses attention on the role and ethics of international corporations in the development (and exploitation) of the world’s poorest countries.
The Kumtor gold mine is located on the permafrost and in an area of active glaciers, about 4000-4400 m above sea level in the seismically active Tien Shan mountains, a region believed to be especially sensitive to global climate change. It is also close to the sources of the Naryn – Syr-Darya river system which provides fresh drinking and irrigation water to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The mine is located within the area of the UNESCO Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve and adjacent to the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve. The location of Kumtor is so inaccessible and so ecologically sensitive that it’s a wonder that anyone could have ever thought it reasonable to dig an enormous open-pit mine there. However, in such a poor country the temptation to engage in risky behaviour can be very difficult to resist.
The people of Barskoon have personal experience of those risks. In 1998 a truck driving up the valley to the mine overturned, spilling approximately 1.7 tonnes of sodium cyanide into the Barskoon River which empties into Lake Issyk-Kul. The villagers downstream were only notified about the accident 5 hours after it took place and only then because the Russian border guards ordered the company to do so. All the details and statistics connected with the accident are a matter of dispute (Moran 2011, Norlan 2000, Prizma 2012). The most reliable sources suggest that at least four people died in the short term and more later. Over 2500 people were poisoned, of which 850 were hospitalised. Additionally, more than 5500 Barskoon villagers were relocated; crops and tourism revenues were lost.
There have been other accidents connected with Kumtor, but uncovering any details is very difficult. Leaving that aside, the day to day running of the mine results in the release of many dangerous pollutants into the environment and has had a negative impact upon the immediate area, including local glaciers, rivers and lakes. Although Kumtor has had some positive impacts on the local communities – especially as regards employment – in Kyrgyzstan hostility towards the mine is widespread, many people feeling strongly that the Canada based company profits too much from it and cares too little about the health, welfare and environment of the local people (Dzyubenko 2013). Under pressure from the Kyrgyzstani people, with support from various NGOs, in recent years Kumtor has made an effort to behave in a more transparent, socially responsible way. Nevertheless, insufficient funds have been put aside for decommissioning the mine once it is no longer economic to work. Given the geological history of the region and the consequences of climate change, the mine will continue to pose serious risks to the environment into the unforeseeable future.
“At Chabysh” Horse Festival
My second experience of the Orientalist mindset in Barskoon was in connection with the “At Chabysh” horse festival itself. It wasn’t until I had arrived in Bishkek that I realised that the festival was not being organised by the Kyrgyz community where it was being held. Nor was it taking place in the context of Kyrgyz traditions. Horse games are one way in which the Kyrgyz culture celebrates its identity. They are closely connected with life cycle events such as marriage, anniversaries and death. But not at Barskoon in 2007, or in various other locations since then.
The Barskoon festival was organised by the ‘Kyrgyz Ate Foundation’, founded and directed by a well connected French horsewoman-journalist, Jacqueline Ripart, with funding from, for example, the French Embassy, the Aga Khan Foundation, the Christensen Fund (USA), and the Kyrgyz government. Interestingly her name is the only one mentioned on the ‘Kyrgyz Ate’ Foundation website: http://www.atchabysh.org/index.php/lang-en/archivesmenu.html. It credits her with the rehabilitation of traditional horse games, the identification of the true Kyrgyz horse and the revival of Kyrgyz horse breeding. The stated objectives of the ‘Kyrgyz Ate Foundation’ are: “a comprehensive program aimed at preserving and rehabilitating the Kyrgyz horse breed and promoting enhancement of sports and tourism (in particular ecotourism) sectors, and handicraft industry” [http://www.asia-plus.tj/en/news/murgab-district-gorno-badakhshan-host-international-horse-festival].
I was informed that local men felt shamed and insulted that, Ripart, a foreign woman, had taken control of their traditional celebrations. She reinvented the rules to fit her Western conception of the way the horse games should be held. She even decided which of the horses were sufficiently ‘Kyrgyz’ to be allowed to participate in the games. Her lack of sensitivity to the feelings of the local people was simply breathtaking.
The Kyrgyz people have been, of course, holding horse games for hundreds if not thousands of years and, in spite of misguided Soviet attempts to improve local breeds, the Kyrgyz horses are not in any danger of extinction. Though some of their traditional tasks have been taken over by motorised vehicles, horses are still used in everyday life for transport as well as for their milk, meat, hides and hair. Some herding tasks can only be carried out on horseback. Every rural Kyrgyz child rides as if they were born on a horse’s back. Maybe they were. These horses, or rather ponies, are intelligent, sure footed and famous for their endurance. They do not need to be rescued by Ripart.
Reducing the games to an entertainment meant to attract tourists, alienates them from their cultural significance. Such an important change in cultural meaning should not be in the power of foreigners. We are back in the realm of Orientalism here. What Ripart’s actions, if not her intentions, say is that she knows what is right for the Kyrgyz better than they do themselves. That is, of course, nonsense. Her financial backing and social/political connections are what have qualified her to take the central position in the organisation of a quintessentially Kyrgyz event.
Both the corporate values of the Kumtor mine operators and the misappropriation of the Kyrgyz cultural heritage by the “At Chabysh” horse festival organisers are examples of modern Orientalism. The environmental damage resulting from gold mining is quite bad enough, but the misappropriation of cultural resources is no less destructive and raises serious questions about how people with little knowledge of, or respect for, Central Asian cultures can end up in positions of power within these cultures – as in the case of the horse festival and even more strangely the Kyrgyz horse itself.
I have concluded from my research for this essay that Orientalism, as described by Edward Said, still holds sway over most Westerners’ thinking. Said’s work focused on the Near East and Islam, but is much more widely applicable – for example, to Asia and Africa.
Finally, I would like to quote a passage from Said’s Orientalism, in which he reflects upon a comment from the Didascalicon by Hugo of St. Victor:
“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land.” The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance (Said, 1978, p 259).
Of course, I take full responsibility for all the views I have expressed in this essay. But, I would like to acknowledge help and advice given to me most particularly by: Guljan Kudabaeva, Wendy Lawson and Jarkyn Samanchina. I am very grateful to the Aigine Cultural Research Center for its help with the logistics of my visit to Kyrgyzstan, and to my hosts in Barskoon for their kind hospitality.
About the author:
Marsha Levine’s formal training was in Archaeology (Cambridge, UK) and Anthropology (Barnard/Columbia, NY). However, her research has always been intensely interdisciplinary and has drawn upon zoology, ethology, ecology, history, geography, biochemistry, palaeopathology, etc. With the lifting of the Iron Curtain, her geographic focus shifted to central Eurasia, Siberia and China. Throughout most of her working life she was a researcher at Cambridge University, studying the impact of the horse on human culture and history in the past. However, the contemporary picture has become more and more central to her interests. And, while photography used to play an important role supporting her research, now the tables are turned and the research supports her photography. For more photos and links, see http://www.mlevinephotos.co.uk.
Ludmila Akmatova & Jumamedel Imankulov, 2010 “Conservation and Management of Cultural Heritage Sites on the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan”. Agnew, N., ed. Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Conservation of Grotto Sites, Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang, People’s Republic of China, June 28-July 3, 2004. Getty Publications. Pages 133-178. http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/pdf/2nd_silkroad4.pdf]
Ashymov, D., 2003. The Religious Faith of the Kyrgyz. Religion, State & Society, 31(2), 133-8. [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09637490308277]
Botoiarova, Nuska. “Islamic Fundamentalism In Post-Soviet Uzbekistan And Kyrgyzstan: Real Or Imagined Threat.” PhD diss., Middle EastTechnicalUniversity, 2005. [http://etd.lib.metu.edu.tr/upload/12606058/index.pdf\]
Cassidy, R., 2009. The horse, the Kyrgyz horse and the ‘Kyrgyz horse’. Anthropology Today, 25(1), 12 – 5. [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8322.2009.00641.x/pdf]
Dadabaev, T., 2009. Trauma and Public Memory in Central Asia: Public responses to political violence of the state policies in Stalinist Era in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kyoto Bulletin of Islamic Area Studies, 3(1), 108-38. [http://www.asafas.kyoto-u.ac.jp/kias/1st_period/contents/pdf/kb3_1/08dadabaev.pdf]
Fitzherbert, A., (2005). Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profiles: Kyrgyzstan, Crop and Grassland Service, Plant Production and Protection Division, United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, Rome. [http://www.fao.org/ag/agp/AGPC/doc/Counprof/Kyrgystan/kyrgi.htm]
Hamm, P., L. P. King & D. Stuckler, 2012. Mass Privatization, State Capacity, and Economic Growth in Post-Communist Countries. American Sociological Review, 77(2), 295-324. [http://asr.sagepub.com/content/77/2/295]
Jacquesson, S., 2010. Reforming pastoral land use in Kyrgyzstan: from clan and custom to self-government and tradition. Central Asian Survey, 29(1), 103-18. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02634931003765571]
Kerven, C., B. Steimann, C. Dear & L. Ashley, 2012. Researching the Future of Pastoralism in Central Asia’s Mountains: Examining Development Orthodoxies. Mountain Research and Development, 32(3), 368-77. [http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1659/MRD-JOURNAL-D-12-00035.1]
For photos of the Kumtor gold mine: http://www.rferl.org/media/photogallery/24922315.html
Norlen, D. “The Kumtor Gold Mine: Spewing Toxics From On High”, Pacific Environment and ResourcesCenter, September 2000. [http://www.nodirtygold.org/pubs/200009%20PERC%20-%20Kumtor%20Gold%20Mine-Spilling%20toxics%20from%20on%20high.PDF]
Moran, R. E. “Kumtor Gold Facilities, Kyrgyzstan: Comments on Water, Environmental and Related Issues: September 2011”, [http://bankwatch.org/sites/default/files/Kumtor-MoranReport-31Jan2012.pdf]
Prizma, “Independent Assessment of the Parliamentary Commission Report, Final Report – 23 September 2012”. [http://www.kumtor.kg/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Prizma-Independent-Assessment-of-Parliamentary-Commission-Report_eng.pdf]
Dzyubenko, O. “Kyrgyzstan sets state of emergency to protect Centerra mine”, Reuters (May 31, 2013). [http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/31/us-kyrgyzstan-centerra-protests-idUSBRE94U0TQ20130531].
Said, E., 1978. Orientalism, London: Penguin.
Said, E. (1980) “Islam Through Western Eyes” from The Nation, Apr 26, 1980. [http://www.thenation.com/article/islam-through-western-eyes#]
Said, E. (2004) “In Memoriam: Edward W. Said (1935–2003): Orientalism Once More”, Development and Change 35(5): 869–879. Blackwell Publishing. [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7660.2004.00383.x/pdf]
Tchoroev, T., 2002. Historiography of Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34(2), 351-74. [http://www.jstor.org/stable/3879832?origin=JSTOR-pdf]
Schmidt, M., (2011). Central Asia’s Blue Pearl: The Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve in Kyrgyzstan, in Biosphere Reserves in the Mountains of the World, ed. Austrian MAB Committee (UNESCO). Vienna: AustrianAcademy of Sciences Press, 73-6. http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/SC/pdf/sc_mab_Mountains_Excellence_in_the_Clouds_EN.pdf]
Wani, M. Y. (2011) “Religious Customs, Tradition, and Shamanism in Pre-Soviet Kyrgyz Society”. January-March 2011, Journal Of Eurasian Studies, Vol III (1), 88-94. [http://www.federatio.org/joes.html]
Williams, B. G., 2003. Jihad and ethnicity in post-communist Eurasia. on the trail of transnational islamic holy warriors in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Chechnya and Kosovo. Global Review of Ethnopolitics, 2(3-4), 3-24. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14718800308405141]
04 October 2013
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Kyrgyzstan/Marsha Levine
The following story by Avery Irons (above), is the winner of Ragazine‘s first fundraising writing contest, “Speculative Fiction by People of Color (Written in 2013)”.
We extend our appreciation to all those who entered the contest, and especially to our esteemed judge, Sheree Renée Thomas.
Runners up (stories to be published in Ragazine in 2014):
Ely Azur’s “Never. Give. You. Up.” (moving but creepy adopted monster/baby/zombie? And a disclaimer, don’t usually care for zombie tales, but this family’s attempt to adopt and become parents during a biological epidemic was compelling)
Lisa Bolekaja’s “Don’t Dig Too Deep,” (spooky children’s lore), and
Sharon Warner’s “The Color of Time” (short and sweet microfiction).
Honorable Mentions for Imagination and Lore
“Jacob and the Owl,” by Shawn Frazier
“Ruth’s Garden” by Kyla Philips
Honorable Mentions for exciting locations/settings:
(Dogon tribe /Africa), Sacha Webley
(Brazil), Adanze Asante
by Avery Irons
Robert pulled our thin curtains aside and jabbed his index finger at the snow falling on the other side of the window. The ceiling light flickered in rhythm with his thumps on the glass. “If those suckers at the city are dumb enough to open up in all this mess, that shows you how jacked up their system is and why you shouldn’t go.”
I lay on the couch watching his shoulders bunch higher and higher towards his neck, the signal that he was prepared to argue the point all night. “How will I get more food credits if I don’t go?” I asked.
“Are you hungry?” he turned hurt eyes to me.
“No, but you know that babies sleep and eat.” I emphasized the ‘you.’ I didn’t want to waddle to the Pregnancy Registration Center in two feet of snow, but I had already traded two night shifts at the hospital to get the day off. If the first radio reports said that the government offices were open, I’d make the trip even if I had to dig a tunnel all the way to downtown Brooklyn.
“We’ve been making it, and we’ll keep on making it. Fernando said he’s gonna need more help in his new building in a few weeks.” Robert walked over to our leaning bureau and rummaged through the top drawer for his emergency pack of cigarettes. Knowing the unpredictability of bodega owners during snowstorms, I hoped that he had enough to get him through the next day. His shoulders gathered even higher—he didn’t.
“You working with Fernando isn’t getting us anywhere. He has you running around the neighborhood fixing toilets and checking boilers at all hours of the night for change. It’s not safe.”
Robert shrugged and sighed as he bent his tall, lean body to check the temperature on our space heater. “Hot or cold?” he asked.
“So hot, I wanna strip naked and go lay in the snow.”
Chuckling, he sat next to me on our saggy loveseat and draped our afghan over his legs, placed my feet in his lap and said, “Please don’t.”
“I don’t have a choice.” I nestled back against the cushion. “Tina says it’s easy. The services clerks think we’re all trifling and sleep with anybody anyway. I just say that it could be more than one man’s baby and I don’t know where either is. They’ll give me a hard time to embarrass me and then move on.”
I told the short version of the story, leaving out the details about the services clerk interviewing my sister raising her voice so all of the other clerks could hear that part of the interview. Tina told me that she’d heard snickering and teeth-sucking from all around her; and, as she left, four or five clerks found reasons to stand or leave their cubicles to cut their eyes at her. I also didn’t tell him about the signs posted all over the PRC describing the government’s plan to start DNA testing all fatherless babies in 2152. The PRC’s would then cross-reference all of the baby DNA samples with the male samples in the Justice System Database. We couldn’t afford the baby I was carrying, so having another in just two years wasn’t even a possibility.
“We always have a choice,” Robert said, his calloused hands kneading my swollen feet.
“Baby, I don’t need a lecture right now.” The over-head light was dim, but I put my arm over my eyes— my own signal that I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “It at least gives him a chance of staying out of the Centers. If something happens to me, or if he gets sick and has to go the hospital, they’ll start digging around. If they figure out he’s yours, they’ll take him for sure. I’ve seen it happen at the hospital—too many times. I’d rather dance with the devil on my own terms.”
“That’s the problem.” Robert shifted upright. “That’s why things never change, except to get worse. People think it’s easier to just go along. Look around this zone. Trash on the streets. Buildings falling down. We choose this shit. You leave the zone every day. You know nobody else in this city lives like this. And they aren’t registering their babies. Even if you say the baby isn’t mine, as soon as he gets to their schools they’ll give him a million diagnostics until they find something wrong with him. And then they’ll take him.”
I lifted up and looked around our studio apartment bulging with just a double bed, our little couch, a work desk for me, a mini-fridge and microwave, and a chest of drawers. The yellowed paint on the walls had cracked and bubbled, and no matter how much I cleaned, the place smelled like the dried-out hardwood floors. The lights flickered again, dimmed for a few seconds and then brightened. “You look around. You have a choice too Robert. We can get out of this. You take care of the baby for the first few months, and I’ll pull whatever shifts I have to finish my practicum hours. Then I can apply anywhere in the city. You’re waiting for some moment when everyone’s gonna run out into the streets. It’s not happening. ”
“What am I supposed to do, Jackie? “ His eyes darted to his ankle bracelet “You show me a good job, in a good neighborhood, with a swipe station near it. Who’s gonna hire me? I went through their facilities, got their diploma, but I come back and can’t get a job.”
I wished that I hadn’t brought up work. He and plenty others would have gotten on-the-books jobs if they could’ve. Few businesses would hire the young men and women returned from the Healthy Child Centers. Even in small print, the words stood out on their records, warning instability and disconnection. Robert’s parole status and the required and random swipe check-ins didn’t make things any easier. I wasn’t trying to upset him, but I was tired of the never ending argument. And I was tired of not talking about what was really going on with him. I softened my voice to just above a whisper. “Just because you lost Little Robert doesn’t mean they’ll take our baby too.”
Robert tensed and straightened on the other side of the couch. His burdened, brown eyes gave me the same searching look they always gave me when I brought up the little boy tucked away in his wallet. “Like father like son. Isn’t that what they say? Isn’t that the reason they sent me upstate, and for this leash around my neck?” He ripped the swipe card and chain off his neck and flung it across the room. “I want to burn that bullshit. I’m just trying to give the baby a chance.”
He leaned his head back against the couch’s spine, closed his eyes and said, “Baby, you know it wasn’t always like this, right? I don’t think it was ever perfect, or ever will be, but it wasn’t like this. It used to be that at least a man had a chance to stand or fall on his own. A child didn’t have to pay for his daddy’s mistakes. I didn’t have anything to do with my no-account father killing that man.” Robert turned to look at me, his eyes fierce and desperate. “Jackie you gotta keep him out of their system. Don’t let it anywhere near him. It eats our babies.”
His words hung over me. My mouth opened, but what could I say? What could I do? As if to buy me a little time, or mercy from the pain in his eyes, the light flittered out and the space heater and mini-fridge both rattled to a stop. We sat in silence and darkness except for the glow from the snow falling outside. I wanted to tell him that I saw what he saw, that I understood, but when you’re surrounded by fire, the only way out is through it.
Robert’s legs started to shake. His breaths deepened between muffled sniffles. I reached over, felt the wetness on his cheeks and ran my fingers through the edges of his short afro. He wrenched away and snapped up off the couch. His bare feet thudded on the hardwood. Our front door screeched open and slammed shut behind him. I remembered his swipe card on the floor across the room, hoisted myself up and stumbled in that direction, running my fingers under the radiator until I found the cheap, aluminum, beaded chain. Not wanting to waste time forcing my feet into my snow boots, I slipped into Robert’s work boots, wrapped the blanket around me and ran to the door only to stop short in the hallway’s complete darkness. I moved back towards our door, but then pictured a gang of cops lounging in a van calling over everyone who passed by. They would take any parolee without a monitoring card to the house of detention. Panicked heat spiked through me and I inched forward until I touched the banister. Balancing my roundness and Robert’s boots, I took the steps one at a time.
The snow fell in sheets of large, wet flakes. I shuffled slowly in Robert’s tracks, working to lift his boots with each step, hoping his bare feet would turn him around soon. My chest and thighs burned after the first block. I leaned against a brownstone’s railing to steady myself and rest for a moment. The gray sky hovered above me like the cement below me, unending and immovable. Without the orange-yellow glow of the streetlights, the snow fell pure white and rounded the cars into rows of little hills. Except for a few prayer candles dotting a few windows, the block had given in to the clarifying darkness. It was a night rarely seen in the city and under different circumstances would have been beautiful, like the night I’d met Robert a couple of years before.
I’d worked a double-shift and had to take the late, late bus back to the zone. A few guys hanging at my stop started following me with hey-babies and shouts that I made my scrubs look good and how badly they needed a nurse. I picked up my pace and headed for the nearest all-night bodega a few blocks away. When we neared a young man smoking on a stoop; I figured he’d only add to my problems. But as we passed him, he stubbed out his cigarette, eased down his steps, stood his full six feet and barked at the guys to leave me alone. Without arguing, they scrambled back towards their corner.
The young man said his name was Robert and walked me the rest of six blocks to the apartment I shared with my sister and grandfather. Keeping a respectful distance between us as we walked, he asked which hospital I worked in and how long I’d lived in the zone. I explained that I’d been born in the zone and raised there by my grandfather after my mother’s death. He only nodded when I said I was surprised that I hadn’t seen him around. Despite the summer heat and my fear that I smelled like antiseptic and sickness, I left my cardigan on since my little curves didn’t amount to much. I concentrated hard on holding my right foot’s pigeon-like tendencies in check, all the while trying to hide my nervous interest in him. I wanted him to ask me more questions, talk more. None of the young guys I knew had a voice like his, gentle and unhurried. I smiled with relief when we reached my building and he asked if he could take me for another walk the next day.
Robert let me into his life a little bit at a time, taking me to his favorite neighborhood spots and his friends’ houses for parties or to hang out. I’d known immediately that he was on parole. It was summer and too hot to hide his ankle bracelet. And his parole officer buzzed him to swipe during more than one of our dates. He’d dash out of the restaurant or friend’s house to the nearest swipe machine and return embarrassed and quiet. A couple of months in, he finally sat me down and told me about the bar fight with another young man back from a Center. He didn’t actually remember the fight just the young man bleeding on the ground as the cops cuffed him.
I trudged in Robert’s tracks for two more blocks, the cold, crisp air squeezing my lungs. “I can only make it one more block, baby, and then I have to go back,” I said aloud to Robert, wherever he was. Tightening the blanket around me, I rubbed my belly to calm the baby kicking in protest of all the late-night jostling. Slow step after slower step I crossed the intersection and began trying to convince myself that Robert would find his way to safety. At the end of the block I scanned all the streets around me. My heart jumped into my throat as a gust of wind swept the snow aside revealing the outline of a man standing stone-still halfway down the next block. I croaked out “Robert” and ran-wobbled, holding my belly, telling the baby it would be okay, and asking God to keep me on my feet.
The snow had whitened his afro and soaked through his t-shirt and jeans. My own feet hurt for his bare toes. His head shook and his shoulders trembled. He stood transfixed. I followed his stare across the intersection to the black, metal spider’s nest raised high above us. You never knew if there were any cops in them. I wasn’t sure if the thing even worked when the power was out, but I wasn’t waiting around to find out. I called Robert’s name again and grabbed his slick, bare arm to pull him back towards home. He jumped a bit, but held his gaze and his ground.
“I’m sorry, baby. I need to get you home safely,” I said as I fastened the swipe card around his neck and tried to pull him again.
He raised his hand to the swipe card and looked at me for the first time. His eyes went back and forth between me and the spider’s nest. His trembles became shudders. I expected him to scream or yell; but, a loud sob burst out of his chest. He dropped to his knees, clutched his stomach and vomited onto the snow. I eased my hand towards him. When he didn’t flinch away, I knelt beside him and began to run the base of my palm up the side of his spine. As I pressed more forcefully, his purges deepened, shaking us both. In that moment, I fully, and finally, realized that it would take both of us to work the pain, anger and fear out of him. When he was spent, I settled my heaviness into the snow beside him and rocked us until the sobs lessened and his breathing slowed.
“We we’re just kids, J. We hadn’t done anything wrong,” he cried. “They set us up. They set us all up. We were so small, baby. How could they do that?”
I wiped away the tears and melting snow in his eyelashes and on his cheeks. “I don’t know, baby. I’m so, so sorry. “
His eyes raised to mine. “Please don’t leave me here. Please don’t leave me,” he begged, holding my hand to his face.
“I won’t ever leave you, Robert,” I said. “Let me take you home.”
His eyes questioned me. I nodded. “Yes, baby, let’s go home.”
With my arm around his waist, we slogged through the three blocks back to our building. Exhausted, and with Robert straining through each step, we climbed the still dark stairs without hesitation. Once inside he headed straight for our bed, but I stood him against the wall to undress him. After he lay down, I elevated his feet, cupped my hands around his cold toes, and was thankful to feel them give a little. Murmuring for me a stop, he groaned as his feet warmed, but I hugged them until I was certain his toes would recover. After I’d tucked him under our comforter and sat beside him, he wrapped his arm around my waist and pressed his head against my hip
“She was in on it, baby,” he said from the edge of sleep. “My mother . . . She let them take me. She should’ve fought and found a way. She told me I was going to some new school with lots of kids and places to run around. She actually said I’d have fun, that I’d be happy there. How J? How could she do that to me? She was supposed to protect me. All of us were so small baby, and mad and hurting. We didn’t know who to blame, so we fought each other. I prayed and prayed for her to come get me. The boys in the dorm laughed at me, but every night I kneeled by my bed. But god never answered my prayers. She never came to get me.”
His arm tightened around my waist. I felt him looking up at me through the darkness. I didn’t know what to say. He rarely talked about his mother. I only knew that she and her second family had moved out of the city during his last stint upstate; she hadn’t left a forwarding address for him. I had no idea why she had registered him or listed his father and couldn’t judge a woman for hard decisions made in hard moments. I just needed Robert to see that I was trying to make the best choice in our hardest moment—I had to go the PRC.
My worn-out body refused to get up and undress for bed, so I dozed off sitting there with Robert. I dreamed the dream I had every night. I was standing in the middle of the street holding a little boy’s hand. The boy and I tried to cross to the sidewalk, but endless cars zipped in front of us and behind us. I shouted for Robert, but one of the bums on the sidewalk yelled that he was locked up again—or sometimes, that he was dead.
The flickering of the overhead light woke me. Relieved to be in the calm of our apartment with Robert safe, I got up to hang up his wet clothes and straighten up before turning in for the night. As I cleaned, I bumped his pack of cigarettes on the chest of drawers. Surprised by the lightness, I opened it. It was empty. He hadn’t said a word about it.
The clock on the chest read five minutes after twelve. I prayed that the all-night bodega hadn’t closed because of the snow. I grabbed Robert’s wallet, slipped on his boots again and bundled my winter coat around me the best I could. The snow had stopped and most of the clouds cleared. The full moon glistened off the momentarily perfect blanket of snow. By sunrise the snow plows would have piled it into street corner mountains, and the buses and cars started their task of turning it into a long-lived, gray slush. The PRC would open in the morning.
It was just half a block to the corner store, but I huffed by the time I made it to the bullet-proof window and pounded to wake the man sleeping behind the glass. He jumped up, fumbled for his glasses, and slicked his hand back over the few strands of hair on his head. “Good thing for you my brothers are late coming to help me close up, or I would have been long gone.”
“Lucky me,” I said. “Can I get ten unmarked?”
“These are for my revolutionary friend.” The man leaned closer to the glass and ran his eyes around the empty street before stretching his arm high above him and bringing down ten unmarked cigarettes wrapped in cellophane.
“Yeah.” I didn’t like where he was about to go.
The man laughed. “I’m not joining any revolution led by a man that sends his pregnant woman out in a snowstorm to get his cigarettes.”
“He’s not feeling good.”
“Sure, Mommy. That’ll be six bucks.”
Robert had exactly six dollars in his wallet. I hesitated, but slipped them into the metal dish beneath the glass. It would be okay—Robert could sell a few as singles if we needed a few dollars until I got paid, or our food credits came through. As I was about to fold the wallet away, I saw the picture of Little Robert and pulled it out of its slot. The boy looked so much like Robert I couldn’t believe the resemblance. On the back, a feminine hand had written “Little Robert, Age 8, 2130.”
I stopped. That date had to be wrong; the picture had to be much more recent. I thought back to one of early dates when I had caught a glimpse of it as Robert had opened his wallet to pay for something. I made him show it. “Who’s that?” I had asked
“Little Robert.” Embarrassed, he rushed the two words as he shoved the picture back into his wallet.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had a son?”
Robert had tilted his head, given me a questioning look and then relaxed. But he spoke with a longing sadness. “The system got him.”
Once back in the apartment and stripped out my bundling, I sat beside Robert again. I looked at the man and then at the boy in the picture. Both had the same point to their ears and arch in their eyebrows. Both had the same brown speckle on the right corner of their bottom lips. I wished that Robert had just said that it was a picture of him. Maybe, I thought, it was too hard for him back then to own that lost and hurting little boy, too risky to trust me with that knowledge. In the photo, Robert’s eyes were blank and his mouth was a straight line. I wondered if Robert’s mother had written his name on the back. How could she have gotten that picture and left him in that place—a scared and miserable little boy, sleeping in a cold, bare room with dozens of other cast-off boys?
Although Robert was healing, the boy would always live inside the man. If we had a baby boy, Robert wanted to name him after his late grandfather, Richard, but with the last letter changed to a “t” so our son would know that even if he was alone or hungry or cold, he would still be rich in his heart. Realizing just how much I had misunderstood Robert hurt my own heart. I had always thought that he wanted a second chance. For the first time, I understood that he’d never had a first, and that I was the only one who could give it to him. I pictured the baby growing inside me, imagining Robert’s toffee skin, lush black curls, and round, dark eyes. Both the child and the man deserved a chance. Clicking off my alarm, I whispered, “I trust you,” as I slid under the blanket and into Robert’s warming arms.
About the author:
Avery Irons is a writer and advocate for youth justice. She currently splits her time between Champaign, Illinois, and Los Angeles, CA.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on CONTEST WINNER: The Chance
the PHOTOGRAPHY spot
Straße der Jugend
(Street of Youth)
A photographic work about poverty in Germany
When I first viewed Stephanie Steinkopf’s “Manhattan” I was expecting in seeing photographs from New York City’s most famous borough and not the downtrodden of those living in a nearly vacant apartment complex in a small village outside of Berlin, Germany.
The photographs give insight into the lives of residents in an area of eastern Germany where the promise of prosperity after reunification never was realized. Steinkopf, over four years, was able gain the residents’ trust to photograph very personal moments. Hopefully, the socially concerned photographer will continue using her medium to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Unfortunately the self-published book, in its second edition, is out of print. With luck, another edition is in the works.
– Chuck Haupt, Ragazine’s Photo Editor
…How do people live here 23 years after the fall of the wall? What do the residents wish for? What are their dreams, visions, hopes and fears? What does their everyday life look like? „Straße der Jugend“, „Street of Youth“ is printed on the main road’s sign, leading past Manhattan. It once was to be a road to the future. What future is there here to be had?” …Manhattan: Street of Youth“ offers us an insight into everyday life. These portrayals are the result of ongoing contact with the residents, full of sadness, disillusion, hope and happiness. They are portrayals of life here, of life now, both young and old, of men and women, of being there but wanting not to be, of personal and regional tragedy.
-From Manhattan, text by Jens Thomas
About the photographer:
Stephanie Steinkopf (1978) earned an MA in Ethnomusicology, Contemporary History and Latin American Studies before starting to study photography. She graduated from the Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie in Berlin in 2012. Her long-term project ‘Manhattan – Street of Youth’ won first prize in the Vattenfall Photo Awards in 2012. In early 2013, Steinkopf’s work was presented in several gallery exhibitions, e.g., C|O Berlin, Kunstverein Tiergarten | Galerie Nord, etc. Her work is focused on long-term projects based on the development of close relationships with individuals. Steinkopf is a freelance photographer in Berlin.
Exhibition at Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Gute Aussichten – new German photography 2013/2014, Febuary 7 till March 23
For the PHOTOGRAPHY spot submissions, please see guidelines at ragazine.cc/submissions/
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Photo Editor’s Choice / Jan-Feb 2014
From the SOME website: http://www.soothersmayeatmexico.org/
* * *
Holiday Time in Passing
by Jim Palombo
I am currently in the small city of San Miguel de Allende located almost in the middle of Mexico. And, as is my custom when I’m on the road, I try to be involved with what might be happening wherever I might be. In that context, here are two pieces I wrote for the local paper, The Atencion – they speak to holiday emotions via the experiences I found myself having this past Christmas. With these experiences in hand there is a lot that connects to the political and economic strategies surrounding them, and that is normally what I would discuss. But in this instance I’ll just pass the comments along and let you decide on what else might follow. And whatever thoughts you find yourself with, I hope they serve you well as the New Year unfolds.
So Others May Eat
I just returned from another SOME (So Others May Eat) program luncheon. I’ve only attended a few of these gatherings but for Joe and Antonette Lim it’s been 25 years and almost 300,000 servings that have been portioned out. That’s right – a quarter of a century and over a quarter of a million lunches served. And this is amid the other activities that happen via the program, activities that include Family Social Integration meetings, Leadership and Training seminars, Prison Visitations, Hygiene Classes, a Ladies Sewing Cooperative, a Food Pantry Outreach and the administration of a Benevolence Fund that further helps people in need. It’s not the grandest of programs but the energy and spiritual strength exhibited by the Lims always makes me shake my head in admiration. But they are quick to point out that although they contribute money from their Spa business (located at Recreo#38) the additional funds to support this span of activities come from the Christian Church Outreach, donations from those so inclined (they can certainly use more assistance) and a number of fundraisers. And in terms of the luncheon itself, although the kitchen staff is donated via the Lim’s Spa, the support group that attends and serves lunches to those 150 to 200 seated participants is made up of local, national and international volunteers – what the Lims reference as the backbone of their/any well-intentioned charity program.
This Wednesday was the Christmas serving and as it is with the other weekly Wednesday gatherings the ages of those present covered a lot of ground, this time ranging from 2 months to 97 years. (This mix alone is a genuine experience.) And given that it was a holiday luncheon, the usual serving and music, songs, dancing and of course prayer were all accompanied by the giving of a special Christmas bag filled with foodstuffs. The idea was that people could then share this food with their families at home – just an additional holiday “touch of the heart” from the Lims. All in all, it was indeed a very heartful afternoon.
I guess one could say that the spirit and dedication of the Lims mirrors the many efforts that take place in San Miguel and across the world as well, every day of the year. It’s the nature of charity work that comes from the grace of God and elsewhere, and it seems to keep what is often the unsteady ship of life afloat. And when I participated in the SOME holiday proceedings, and again recognized the dignity and soul surrounding their entire program, I got the feeling that can only come by experiencing what people like the Lims do. It’s a feeling that cannot be manufactured – it’s simply just felt – by means of an effort put forth in the true meaning of paz y amor, week in and week out. In all honesty I felt lucky to be provided the chance to recognize this sensation in myself, and for that I am sincerely grateful to all those who were present on Wednesday.
Although a lot more can be said about the holiday gathering (and the many similar events held within the San Miguel community) I trust that all of you reading this can grasp the depth of what the SOME program and the Lims have been part of. They asked me to relay that on behalf of them, their supporters and the program participants, the wish for a happy and thoughtful holiday season is extended – and may the New Year bring the elements of hope and joy more readily to your table.
(As a brief addendum to this piece let me add that poverty and hunger in the world are not things to celebrate. Yet, in the context of efforts like that of Lims and particularly in this time of the year, the closing words of Max Ehrmann in Desiderata come to mind: “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.”)
There are two dumps located in this area of Mexico, one in the vicinity of San Miguel and the other, located about 30 miles away, is near the city of Dolores Hidalgo. I’ve had the experience of visiting both sites in the past, predominantly to see how the people living out there are faring and if indeed the conditions were as bad as some had indicated. In that regard I have to answer both yes and no in terms of my visit. The “yes” part is directly tied to the belief that no-one, especially the young (say infants to twelve) should be living in the conditions that the people in these dumps are living in. Given the smell, the filth and the overall lack of what can easily be considered ‘basic’ living elements, the dumps are an affront to human decency. And this is no matter what political platform you support or how you frame individual and societal responsibilities. On the “no” side unfortunately (and I say this with legitimate sadness and despair), I’ve seen worse.
That being said, this Christmas Eve I had friends who went to both sites to bring food and clothing and some presents for the people who make the dump their home. From their recollection, and like most others who happen to find themselves making this trip, it was both a heartwarming and heartbreaking experience. And as I listened to their comments about the deplorable living conditions mixed in with the cold and damp weather of the day and looked at the few pictures they took (with great care not to offend) I couldn’t help but recall the images of the dirty, hungry and listless faces that I encountered in my visits. Suffice it to say it was a most unsettling sensation.
Perhaps on any normal day I wouldn’t have made any more of the discomfort that the images pushed. Again I had seen worse and I had on several occasions sorted through what feelings the sightings had prompted. But later that evening as I sat in front of our big screen and listened to the beautiful Christmas sounds coming from the beautiful choirs across the world, the images of the poor and dirty and hungry came back at me. I tried not to let the sadness overcome the beauty I was witnessing, but it was simply unavoidable.
Amid the welling of tears all I could think about was how strange a world it is – where clean and bright and healthy souls could sing with such joy and spirit at Christmas time while others lived in such gut wrenching misery. It wasn’t as if the conditions were the carolers’ fault or even if fault was in play. It was more of an empty feeling, as if that was the way of world, as it always has been, and as it will more than likely always be.
I guess this wasn’t in the best of holiday spirit but it was what it was. And again the feeling lay somewhere between the heartwarming and heartbreaking landfill that is life. Perhaps it’s just too hard, given all that we can see of today’s world, to let ourselves slip into total joy. Maybe it’s just a matter of enjoying what we can of joy’s relative availability. In any event, I know that the contrast of those whose images were so beautifully arranged versus those whose lives are anything but, presented something meaningful. And in the context of that meaning, I can only extend best wishes for a thoughtful year ahead.
About the author:
Jim Palombo is politics editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Politics Aside
Drawing Room/Walter Gurbo
With No Affixes
by Joel James Davis
People take turns holding Anne, the eldest. She’s unhinged, wrecked, disjointed right now, being the one who found her father. She continues to murmur about his face, what it looked like inside the tight coil of rope that was less like a noose and more like a thick, fancy summer camp necklace. Anne turns sixteen tomorrow and is surrounded by extended family who fidget on the folding metal chairs. Her sister Janey, twelve, hair the color of al dente spaghetti, sits next to Anne. Janey began her menstrual cycle that morning.
Many strange new things.
On the other side is Sylvia, the youngest of the three Papa has intentionally left behind. She has a generous space in her mouth where teeth will eventually decide to reappear. A pixie cut is the dark shingles on her tiny roof. She’s small, and the ceiling in this room seems so far away to her.
All three cry together as the reverend says nice things, avoiding, of course, that one thing each person in the stiff chairs is thinking. Tissues are yanked from boxes like the table cloth during a magic trick.
Cemetery, dirt, flowers.
Day succumbs, evening arrives.)
Back at home, the air in the house feels like the sound a car makes when it won’t start, and everyone’s gone except Aunt Sophie and the three girls he has left behind.
Not much has been said all day until Janey notices a void in their new family.
They call her name.
Sylvia! They check the entire wooden home, floor to ceilings.
Dear God! they hear Sylvia call. Dear God!
She’s out front, Auntie Sophie says. They rush through the door, onto the stoop, down to the lawn next to Sylvia and a prostrate step ladder.
Look! Sylvia says, directing her index finger toward the night sky. It’s Papa!
Their heads follow the finger high into space until their eyes rest on the giant yellow moon.
It’s Papa! Sylvia repeats. The moon has swallowed Papa!
There, sure as anguish and sorrow exist in this world, Papa’s inside the moon.
How’d he get there? Sylvia asks.
Look what his light does to the colors of the grass and the car and… us. Look at us! Janey says. Look at what Papa has done to us.
Anne looks into Janey’s eyes. The moon is the sky’s menstruation. It arrives and cleanses the sky of the past month’s tragedies.
So it’s taking Papa?
Yes, Anne says, smiling, finally smiling.
Sylvia tugs at the ladder. They all lift it to make a large A shape. Go to Papa, Sylvia says to Anne, rubbing a small circle on her back.
As midnight arrives and as Anne turns sixteen, she climbs the ladder, stretches toward the endless roof of the world, and brushes her long fingers across Papa’s smile. Anne’s smile goes slack. Why’d you have to do it? she whispers, pinching a crater into his bright moon face before descending down, down, down.
About the author:
Joel James Davis has work in Redivider, Alimentum, Paterson Literary Review, Pindeldyboz, Bitter Oleander, Lamination Colony, Portland Review, and others. He lives in Binghamton, N.Y., where you can probably find him right now at Kingsley’s Pub drinking beer with Kim.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Joel James Davis/Fiction
Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
Featuring Two Prose-Poems
by Tatiana Olga Rodeiro
with Photographs by Sacha Webley
Organized by Dr. José Rodeiro, Art Editor
“Carnaval in northeastern Brazil marks five days of beauty and chaos. Crowds erupt in the skin of the street, following enormous parades of musicians, dancers, and orixás, (ancient Yoruba divinities originally brought to Brazil by captured slaves). Here, where African, Amerindian, and European traditions have fused and transformed each other, the sacred, the strange, the debauched and the profound all party together. Men dress up as goddesses, women take their clothes off and howl at the stars. And everywhere, little children run back and forth, shouting in wild celebration. I’ve spent the last few Carnavals in Salvador, the capital city of Afro-Brazil, trying to absorb and capture the mystic strangeness that attends this annual event.”
Sacha Webley, photographer, painter, and poet; 2013.
“Whenever excruciating, shocking, or heartbreaking choices, tragic misgivings, cravings, constraints and burdens are evident, ‘Great Beauty’ manifests in great art, as artists quarry those cruel jagged dints and scars (‘soul-blemishes’), resulting from painful and shameful agonizing decisions, dark experiences, suspicions, yearnings, limitations and faults!”
Tara Dervla, critic, in a conversation
with José Rodeiro about Lorca’s duende; 2012.¹
* * * * *
From February 27 until March 5, 2014, the spirit of “Carnaval” will run wild in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, fueling the largest “Street Party” in the universe. In the Roman Catholic liturgical year, “Carnaval” occurs the week before Ash Wednesday, after which begins a regimen of self-discipline, abstinence, fasting and moderation throughout the 40-day Lenten Season, which ends with Christ’s Easter Resurrection. The mad revelry of Carnaval derives from ancient Greek and Roman festivals (i.e., Kronos Rites, Saturnalia Feasts, and other fêtes) — pagan rituals celebrating the termination of winter, as well as spring’s advent.In Salvador, Bahia, “Carnaval” is known for being the most ebullient hot-blooded festival on Earth, demanding total freedom, full-blown self-emancipation, unabashed letting-go, or insisting by any means upon total Rimbaudesque emotional and intellectual release.
To document this distinctive Bahian milieu, Cuban-American poet-dancer, Tatiana Olga Rodeiro, has written two prose-poems, with an array of duende-filled photographs by Jamaican-American visual artist, Sacha Webley. Tatiana’s prose poems describe both daylight hours in Salvador and its nightlife as they capture Salvador’s post-colonial environment. This unique Neo-Tropicalia artistic collaboration reveals Salvador, Bahia, in words and images. In the same way that musicians conceive inimitable signature-sounds, the artists create their own distinctive poetic-visual language. By placing full emphasis on the subject matter, their art avoids getting in the way of their art. As John Keats argued in his letter of February 3, 1818, to J. H. Reynolds, “Art should be great and unobtrusive; a thing, which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze the soul with overt artistry, but, rather with its subject-matter.” Hence, in this Neo-Tropicalia collaboration where subject-matter dominates, Salvador, Bahia, carries the full aesthetic weight of what is being presented.
* * * * *
Sacha Webley photos of Carnaval in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval3.jpg]180Drummers
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval4.jpg]160Women Dance in Street
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval5.jpg]210Clown and Girl
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval6.jpg]200Royalty
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval7.jpg]190Parasol
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/carnaval/thumbs/thumbs_carnaval2.jpg]190Christ
Sacha Webley, Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
* * * * *
“All this took place; let him who will believe. It took place in Bahia, where these and other acts of magic occur without startling anybody.” — Jorge Amado. Salvador, April 1966
Beyond the wrought iron bars of my open window,
overlooking the port city of Salvador da Bahia,
the isolated ships groaning against their anchors
mirror the barking of stray matted dogs on the creaking docks
and the forsaken souls that wander the cobbled streets of colonialism,
encrusted in a shroud of shadows and the destitute gnawing injustice of hunger.
The Bay of All Saints sleeps before me,
blanketed in votive rose petals and silver fish scales,
strung pearls of constellations reflected, the collected patient hours
of sailors´ lives past, rusting slave chains and the sunken memoirs
of the illiterate, sacred offerings, candles and blood, lost objects,
broken hearts, longing and unborn children swimming, waiting.
The slithering echoes of memory, sailing across the background of centuries, are seeped amongst blades of grass in the forsaken fields of the Lord and the brown barefooted cities of engulfed cries, ravenous cities settled over the secret bones of subversion, buried like black Xangô stones in the brave indignant palms of clenched fists. The vermilion moon rose miraculously again from the bed of coral rocks that cradled the gaping sea of displacement inside you, where you cast your nets of merciful prayers for survival into the Atlantic Ocean, hoping to reach the distant shores of your lost home, so that at last your ancestors might answer your desperate call. May these unanswered tears spilled turn into serpents that swim into the undersea harbor of the Mother of salt waters, where dreams and sorrows are moored within the mercurial depths of her all-encompassing abundance. The white baptismal dress of seafoam adorns her eminence and the moonlight is her crown. The shells she casts mark the fate of our humanity. The moments of life poured from my body of salt and sea water and centuries of evolution and the ancient stories of entangled seaweed strands of DNA, of love and despair. All this as the immortal Atabaque drums echo throughout the hollow humid night of pulsating quiet stars, ringing out like gunshots across the sloping favelas, summoning the forces of the earth, the sirens of the rivers and the spirits of the forest, to awaken the lost Quilombo of memories that sleeps restlessly within the beating heart.
I swam with your daughters from the lively praia of Porto da Barra sprawling with glistening exposed bodies, barefoot soccer and capoeira games, radios blaring popular Axé and Samba-Reggae songs over which scrawny sun-scorched children hustle vending: “Cerveja! Queijo! Picolé! Acaí na Tigela! Coca-Cola!” We swam out to the rudimentary tiny wooden barquinhos lovingly painted bright blues and canary yellow left by the poor Bahian fishermen to toss upon the water until next morning’s catch. There, our drenched bodies swaying like eels above the water, we serenaded you with your ancient Yoruba songs, singing with all the might of our throats on fire and all the bound fibers of our being bursting forth, unraveling into freedom in the sheer moment of beauty as the sun melted into a crescendo of luminescent mango flesh over the enigmatic island of Itaparica. The local fishermen have built you a temple overlooking the water in the neighborhood of Rio Vermelho, for you to protect their vulnerable boats and to bring them in return fish to feed their families: it is a dream intimately anointed in sculptures of mermaids. Always a candle burns for you there. Every February 2nd , the entire city of Salvador proceeds to the shore dressed ceremoniously in white in honor of you, like white crabs instinctively hurrying across the sand, where entire fleets of these tiny fishing boats are proudly filled with an extravagant excess of gifts to be ritually scattered into the depths of the ocean to appease you and to praise you. Millions of roses are handed as gifts to you; they float beautifully upon the water, as gently adrift adornments.
Your waves have combed my hair; you have carried my screams, the letters and photographs of my life. You have fed me and caressed my body, healed my wounds, held my devotion, my anguish, my terror. You have inundated my spirit and borne witness to the greatest moments of joy I have ever known. I have sailed across this world that is yours; you have blessed me a thousand times over. You have bathed my family, you have brought my family here safely across your vast ocean — sailing across generations from Spain and the Canary Islands, off the coast of North Africa, to Cuba and the Americas; you are washed in the voices of my ancestors. My body is made of all the constituent elements of your being and my spirit holds the essence of your divine source. I carry the memory of your tidal rhythms within my own being. You are the primordial source from which my species crawled centuries ago. You were my womb before this life, you will carry me through the ebb and flow of this life as my deepest calling, and it is to you to whom I will return when my body dies. You are the Mother of All: Queen Iemanjá !
Suddenly, the dead, yet windy, voice of Jorge Amado swished through the tuft of a nearby palmtree, swaying, “On the crest of the ocean waves, Yemanjá, dressed all in blue, with her long hair of foam and crabs. Her tail of silver held three different sexes, one white of seaweeds, the other scum green, the third of black powers. With her fan, the abebê, she called up the winds of death. She commanded a fleet of hulls of ships; an army of fish greeted her silently: Oboiá !”
* * * * *
Salvador, Bahia, Brazil at Night
The labyrinthic winding one-way streets of the old original part of the city are impossibly narrow, breeding malignant jeering predators; stewing Hieronymus Bosch-faced drunkards by night, blockaded on either side by the decaying teeth of wary Baroque facades. Rounding the corner — where a blood-glistening obsidian rooster nestled in a ceramic bowl, awaiting the imminent crossing of Exu,
a rabid gang of grey bulletproof-vested armed policia militar encircle a small man;
a forsaken runt of the human litter; just an indignant and diminished alcoholic skeleton, saran-wrapped in cinnamon skin and panting backwater lingo,
who cowers further into his sagging tropical neon swim-trunks, while being restrained and beaten down into unforeseen anguish: a helpless snare, undefended in the end by the puffed-up projection of machismo that he had used his entire life to navigate this fermenting city.
I must pass. . . .
swallowing the palpable panic of my own heightened vulnerability
and the thundering impulse of righteousness and humanity coursing my veins,
I tell myself, “I m only a young woman; I have no say in any of this,”
as I continue stepping forward over heaving piles of dog-eaten trash sloshed in human urine.
There is only one darkness.
To see it, all one needs are human eyes and the cradle of history.
To know it, I have only to uncover the rifts and poisons within my own being.
I know that my fear will only feed this violence.
And, who among us can trace how far back the mind goes
or the depth of the source from which all these thoughts come streaming through — all wise and insane and beautiful with stupidity and refracted light.
To neutralize man, there is only one other possibility of polarity.
It is all I ever had to give. . . .
like the black moist seeds hiding in ripe papayas amid the urgent grace of thirsting hummingbirds,
erupted from the constraints of my ribcage,
dumbfounded and rich, stepping out into the suspended night.
“Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow;”
On the top of my throbbing lungs,
elated and grieving,
“Bloom and grow forever.”
and in this moment, somewhere on the other side of the earth,
the dust of my mother’s strong-boned ancestors smiled at a field of glorious wildflowers, which I will never be able to gather.
I did not look back to see if a hesitant trace of peace that lingered from the imprint of my song — echoing open an aperture in time,
a mantle, through which light might enter, infiltrating
and perhaps slither in through porous ears, soothing belligerent blood, softening clenched fists, sending everyone home for a night’s rest in the plump arms of their worried wives.
Perhaps this man was my rapist with a knife like the crescent moon,
if Salvador had been running on schedule for once,
and my naive song meant nothing to this world
as it bled over ancient cobblestone streets worn down by the forgotten footsteps of slavery and slipped like silent lizards through the cracks where bruised pastel paint peels like fruit skins off the mildewing walls of colonialism.
I do not know, if there will be any windows in prison for him to receive sunlight and the passage of days, or if even that is stripped away solely by the usage of artificial fluorescent lighting. Perhaps this man’s last memory of true light will be the faint twinkling of a distant hanging garden of tiny white mountain flowers, choking on the smog of plastic burning in the lower city, as a foreign girl singing sweetly in a foreign language passes behind an impenetrable wall of shouting, guns and armor, as she walks home to write down ‘his story’ and look out her bedroom window, wondering about the inner story behind all that has happened here.
About the contributors:
Sacha Webley is a photographer, painter and poet living internationally. More of his work can be seen at www.sachawebley.com.
Tatiana Olga Rodeiro is a poet and dancer, born in 1988 in Appalachian Maryland. For the last six years, she has lived in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, where she studied dance at La Escola de Dança da Fundação Cultural do Estado da Bahia. She has appeared on Brazilian TV programs. Her poems, written extemporaneously with little revision, have been published in the Edison Literary Review; The Cultural Journal; Nexus; Exit 13, Solstice, and elsewhere. Her undergraduate degree is from Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado.
Jose Rodeiro‘s take on duende is explored in “What is Duende?“, http://www.duendeart.org/# . He is art editor of Ragazine.CC, and professor of art history at New Jersey City University.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on The Poetry of Carnaval/Salvador Bahia Brazil
Returning Vets Joining
Ranks of the Unemployed
by Patrick T. German
Not so long ago I was standing in the dark, 3:00 a.m., waiting for pick-up at Camp Pendleton, California, for my unit that was deploying to Iraq. While I waited for the bus, I spent those final moments comforting my bride who was six-and-a-half months into her first pregnancy. Her eyes welled with tears as she tried to be strong for me, not wanting to make my departure harder than it already was. I still remember watching her from the bus as she walked back to her car in the dark, shoulders low, head bowed with slightest jerks of her body from the sobs she could no longer hold back. Definitely the hardest moment of my life; she was worried for me and I for her. At that moment, I couldn’t wait for my new career as a civilian – someday – where I would never have to leave her again.
I imagined that when the time came, my transition to a civilian job would be relatively easy. However, I had heard through the grapevine that many Marines departing before me were having trouble locating work. It seemed that many vets quickly abandoned civilian job searches to just seek government positions instead. Marines are closed-chested about any actions that could be perceived as failure. So, information about how Marines might be failing to find work post-service weren’t echoing in the halls, much. Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to the rumors I did hear. I was confident my experience and education would transcend.
In my USMC time I have served in roles ranging from Commander of 400 troops in Iraq supporting five separate support missions in a war-torn country, Executive Officer of a Battalion of 1200 Marines responsible for all aspects of a corporation, to the military version of a Chief Financial Officer for a Recruiting District covering eight states. To ensure my readiness for the job market, I completed my MBA six years prior to retiring. I was told repeatedly throughout my service by military and civilians alike that I would be highly sought after by corporate America. I can still hear them saying, “It’s your leadership skills that set you apart,” or “American corporations love vets.” Others would say, “Your experience in finance, cost analysis and strategic planning for a volatile mission will be coveted by corporations.” So you can understand my shock and confusion that after 10 months of applying, networking, and “getting connected,” I am still waiting for my first interview. That’s right, I am not talking about a job offer, I am talking about the courtship phase: “The Interview.”
How is it that after 10 months and well in excess of 200 jobs applied for that someone with my background, education and record of success hasn’t even piqued the interest of any one employer? Mathematically speaking, you would think that even a half-baked approach to finding a job would have earned at least one interview by now. So where is the disconnect? Is it me or is it a corporate America that means well but doesn’t really see its veterans as, “valued added?” Are they aware that the automated search tools used by recruiters are screening veterans like me out of an interview? What are those magical “key words” the recruiters are looking for? If I don’t have them, does that really mean I am not the best fit for the position?
Like any husband and father, I am concerned about my ability to support my family. I started my job search earlier than most, just to ensure that I would begin my next career before my salary dropped to half (based on pension income). That’s what you are told anyway. In reality, your pension is based off of 74% of your full income. So the 50% retirement is actually more like 37%. Definitely not enough for us to sustain what has been our normal standard of living.
Then there are the VA benefits. I am not sure what congressional subcommittee placed the monetary values on our injuries but I am certain these people weren’t suffering from any of them themselves. Surprisingly, the VA appears to do everything in its power to screen veterans in such a way that they never receive the benefits they were promised. In my own experience, I was originally set to be medically discharged from the Marine Corps after 22 years for combat related injuries at 20%. But we were all are promised 50% at 20 years. Why the sudden change, I have no idea. So instead of sailing smoothly towards my separation, at that point, I actually found myself in a fight just to save my retirement.
Fortunately, I prevailed despite only being given 10 days to obtain medical professional rebuttals. Note: Everyone knows it takes more than 10 days to get in to see a medical specialist, not to mention giving those doctors time to write out medical rebuttals on your behalf. The point that many service members need to know is, despite all that they have been told throughout their years of service,nothing is geared at making the transition easy for veterans to go from military to civilian life.
Deployment delay, 2006.
At least vets can count on those corporations that wave the American flag the most, right? I am talking about large corporations like Walmart advertising their “Veterans Welcome Home Commitment,” stating that they will hire “any” honorably discharged veteran within 12 months of their discharge. I applied four months ago and haven’t even received an email confirming the receipt of my application.
Another self-proclaimed leader in veteran support, USAA, advertises that it is an organization created “by veterans for veterans.” As a customer of USAA for over 20 years, I saw USAA as an obvious next career choice. However, what I have learned from my 35 applications to their organization is that it seems that they really aren’t that interested in someone from their market who has 20 years’ experience in finance. Straight from USAA’s own web site, “Earlier this year, USAA announced it had increased its internal hiring goal from 25 to 30 percent of all new hires be veterans or military spouses, understanding that military experience is a preferred qualification for providing best-in-class service to USAA members and the military community.” Their goal is 25-30% of new hires to be veterans. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Seriously, though, I would have thought most USAA workers would already be veterans. I spoke to a USAA HR representative just the other day who, after reviewing my profile on LinkedIn and perusing my resume, still had no idea what my rank was. She must have that critical “industry experience corporations love so much.”
I am a “fixer” by nature. When faced with a problem, I want to analyze it until I have solutions. So, my first response in this process has been to analyze myself. Am I the problem? Should I be doing more? Should I be doing my job search another way? As a leader, I feel responsible for those who follow me. I want to overcome this challenge and share my lessons learned so that others who follow in my footsteps won’t have to re-learn the same lessons that I am facing now.
I began by asking myself if my resume wasn’t what recruiters were looking for. I tried different styles; I asked recruiters for feedback and made the recommended changes in hopes of landing that first interview. Still no interest. I even hired a career agency to aid me in making this transition. Certainly with the help of their experience, I can produce a resume that corporate America will notice enough to want to “kick the tires” to see if I am the right “model” for them. Still, I keep hearing the same things over and over. Things like, “You have no experience in the industry,” “You don’t have the right certifications,” or (my favorite for its complete lack of clarity), “We are going in a different direction.”
Next I asked, is just sending resumes and cover letters too impersonal? Do I need to get face-to-face with the employer’s reps? The next logical step was to hit the road and make the face-to-face connections at the highly recommended job fairs. Let me just cut to the chase. If you have ever been to a job fair, then you will know that this is what you will hear nine out of 10 times from a recruiter: “Thanks for your interest, please feel free to apply online to any position.” The people you meet are like Walmart greeters, pleasant to speak with but seemingly of little help in finding their organization or the job seeker the “ideal fit.”
So many military faces in the job fair crowds appearing hopeful of finding a positive lead. As the day wears on, though, more and more veterans slip out, disappointed in the lip service of American corporations. One can’t help but wonder if the corporations get a tax break for just attending these military-focused job fairs. So many corporations show up, but almost none makes any real effort to screen people for actual or potential positions. The job fair has the feel of a speed dating event, a quick greeting, here’s my card, followed by a sweeping arm gesture to the laptop where their online application awaits.
The final step in my journey has led me to the networking portion of the job hunt. We have all heard the saying, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” Like many, I subscribe to this way of thinking. Having moved to a new city post-retirement, I have very few personal connections. Most of my old bosses are actually still in the USMC serving as Colonels and Generals. Since my arrival in my new town, I have used every avenue I can think of to build a network by sending letters, emails and in-person introductions, all to build my network. This has fostered some contacts from people that genuinely want to help. Some have offered advice and others, a referral to someone else. But most, sadly, have repeated the corporate line, “Please contact our HR professionals and apply online.”
A blog-article in The Washington Post in November states, “… the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since 9/11 stood at 10 percent, with 246,000 out of work. That’s the same rate as it was a year ago, and it’s a higher jobless rate than it is for non-veterans…” The article goes on to list the main reasons that unemployment rates for vets aren’t improving: higher disability rates, lack of civilian work experience and the failure of government assistance programs to help remove licensing/certification hurdles.
Another article in Time Magazine online, states, “In January of 2013, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America surveyed our membership. In that snapshot of over 4,000 new vets, 16% said that they were unemployed. Of our members that are unemployed, 33.8% have been unemployed for longer than a year. More than 17% have been unemployed for more than two years.” These facts and figures are not reassuring to any current vet looking for work. How many vets can afford to be out of work this long?
The article goes on to point out what may be one of the most critical points of failure in the system, “Today’s business leaders don’t understand the value that veterans bring to the table. This is one of the first generations of business leaders that largely didn’t serve in the military, which poses real cultural barriers to understanding military skills and experience.”
So what is the answer? How does a veteran get noticed by a corporate recruiter? How does he/she beat the automated resume-filtering database while maintaining integrity? Like so many other veterans, all I need is an opportunity to shine. I challenge corporate America to give more veterans less lip service and more face-to-face interviews. I challenge all corporate Hiring Managers, CFOs, CEOs, Directors and Managers to educate themselves to recognize the real value in the men and women who have served their country; give them the chance to tell you how their skills actually translate. See that our vets have so much to contribute that is needed in the American workforce today.
I think, as a result, corporations will naturally find their percentages of veteran employees climbing (a result they claim they desire). It’s the “Adapt and Overcome” attitude of the veteran that will win them over in the end.
* * *
About the author:
Patrick T. German is a recently retired Marine with 23 years of service, a B.S. in Education, and MBA. He has been stationed all over the Continental US, Japan, and Iraq. His first book, Progenitor: Palak and the Sky Gods, was selected as a USA Best Books Finalist for Fantasy in 2012. www.patrickgerman.com
* * * * *
The Washington Post, WonkBlog, “The Unemployment rate for recent veterans is incredibly high,” by Brad Plumer, November 11, 2013.
Time Magazine, online, The Ground Truth on Veterans’ Unemployment, Tom Tarantino, March 22, 2013.
* * * * *
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Patrick T. German/Vets Face New Fight
One of Many Small Labels Producing Great Music
* * * * *
Free Will at Work:
Blaze Your own Trail
by Fred Roberts
It is that time again when everyone writing about music comes out with their list of top ten best releases of the last year. There are so many of these articles, in fact, the next step would be to start compiling lists of the best lists, and then lists of the best lists of the lists, and so on. If you had a dime for every year-end retrospective you could power a jukebox for a decade. By their nature these selections are arbitrary because no one person could ever honestly appraise all of the thousands of releases done in the period of a single year. And even the highest calibre musician may tour extensively for years and still not break into the critics’ consciousness. A year-end list also encourages passivity. Give a man a fish and he will eat for day. But I say, teach him to fish and he will find the next Trout Mask Replica all by himself.
Most everyone has noticed how the Internet has brought us closer together, made specialized culture available to a worldwide audience and opened up new ways to discover music. Naturally there are numerous sites that make it easier for bands to present their music and some that give random suggestions based on some unspecified algorithm, such as who paid the most for promotion, but even if not that cynical, do we want our musical discoveries to be guided by an inscrutable algorithm? It is a modern application of the free will vs. destiny discussion. You can slip past all that to take a proactive role in blazing your own trail through the musical realms. Consider these steps:
1) Notice and follow chance occurrences involving music, a song you overhear, an interesting album cover you see, an intriguing blurb in a magazine, a mention by a friend, anything.
2) Visit the Website of the label behind the band you have found.
3) Explore the various artists at the label, listen to sample tracks – (Many small labels allow listening to complete albums via bandcamp or soundcloud).
4) If you fall in love with some music you find, support the artist by ordering a record, cd, digital download or attending a concert.
5) Share your experiences with your friends. Chances are good they will not know about the great music you found. Most people never look beyond the obvious.
Why does this work? Most small labels are run by people who feel passionate about music, and want to present the highest quality selection possible. It is more about art than about commercial enterprise. It is hard not to find good music in an environment like that. Below are some “case studies” based on my own experiences.
This year a spontaneous coincidence led me to the music label Ljup Musik in Sweden. Visiting a friend at a gig in Bremen we saw the band Club K of that label and loved their music. Back home after the concert I explored the Ljup Website. It is a small label in Kristianstad run by Joel Andersson, Christina Källstrand and Patrik Jönsson. They say of themselves “Ljup musik is an independent, small and personal label that deals with music that sometimes means a lot to many people, and sometimes means a lot to only a few.” The Website is mostly in Swedish, but after some random exploration I found the essential sections: “AFFÄR” leads to a bandcamp page where you can listen to and purchase all of the releases.
“ARTISTER” gives detailed information about the bands, though not all in English. Aside from Club K and Dear Sasquatch, which I reviewed here at Ragazine, there was much more that impressed me. MOCO is the duo of Naoko Sakata (piano) and Casey Moir (voice) performing dadaistic, avant garde pieces, not traditional songs but vocal art along the lines of Kurt Schwitters and his “Sonata in Urlaute” accompanied by Satie-like piano work. But there was even more. The jazz group Pombo has a lovely album called “Hunden” which means dog in Swedish. That’s about all I understood of the lyrics, but the jazz is harmonic and pleasing to the ears. The vocals by Marie Hanssen Sjåvic make Swedish sound like the most beautiful and mysterious language in the world. Another gem on the label is Silence Blossoms, with poetry interpretations set to timeless jazz. It sounds like walking around the corner into a beat club in early 1960’s Greenwich Village, but with another foot in the new century. Have a look at the Website. What are your favorites after exploring?
Lado ABC is a Polish label I recently stumbled upon, rich in modern-retro Slavic sounds. In their audio section you will find a selection of tracks by the various bands they cover, Polish hardcore to avant garde dissonant jazz. My favorites on the label are Alte Zachen and Mitch & Mitch. Alte Zachen stands out with hasidic surf instrumentals. The big band combo Mitch & Mitch succeeds in combining modern jazz with surf styles, as well as the cutting edge collaboration with Felix Kubin. The most unexpected surprise was the alternative folk band Paula i Karol, harmonic and upbeat compositions that would be at home in Ohio, rather than Warsaw. There is much more to explore at Lado ABC and I feel like this is the music I will be listening to in 2014.
The label Woodland Recordings is one I found purely by chance. Searching for a certain video clip at a Hamburg venue I came across a different band, Vivian Void, seven girls with loads of charm in minimalistic numbers like “High Heeled Shoes” or the epic “Love History”. The label’s mission statement “We make beautiful releases of music we love and organise concerts for artists” shows the passion behind the project. Stephen Burch (The Great Park) is label proprietor, a compelling singer/songwriter from England who has curated a variety of bands from around Europe and even in America. His own “Wöschnau Recording” with violinist Sophia Basler is magnificent. Recent Woodland releases center on folk and acoustic artists. The German musician Fee Reega, has an amazing trilingual release: “Wildheit / Salvajada / Savagery”, interpreting her songs in English, German and Spanish. The newest addition to the catalogue is Lucille Furr of Long Beach, California, dark folk songs on acoustic guitar, with lyrics that are simultaneously eerie and alluring. Her voice casts a twisting spell that doesn’t easily let go. That’s what I found at Woodland Recordings, but I have only begun to browse.
Do you see how it works? There are so many small labels in existence, and you have the power to explore them, to revel in the feeling of discovery, taking a chance turn and being the first to find something that none of your friends know about, and that could become personally meaningful to you for a long time after. I have a feeling that thirty from years from now, when mass culture has faded, that this will be the real story of music. Here is a list of some interesting European labels to get you started:
Alcohol Record Label: Strange, fun music label in UK. Tip: Ron ‘Pate’s Debonairs feat. Rev. Fred Lane – Raudelunas’ Pataphysical Revue
Beear Records: Russian indie label with music from Stalingrad (sic)
Blue Rose Records: Americana in Europe, alternative country. Tip: Chris Cacavas
Buback Tonträger: German punk, outsider label. Tip: Die Goldenen Zitronen
Crammed Discs: World-alternative music label in Belgium. Tip: Maia Vidal
Finders Keepers Records: UK label with exotic, obscure reissues
Gagarin Records: Sci-fi future electronic avant wave in Germany. Tip: Candy Hank
La Olla Express: Quirky, electronic-eclectica label in Barcelona. Tip: Florenci Salesas
Lado ABC: Polish jazz avant garde retro future. Tip: Alte Zachen
Ljup Musik: Alternative music from Sweden
Mik Musik: Bizarro electronic label in Poland run by Wojciech Kucharczyk
Surfin’Ki records: Italian psychedelic garage. Tip: Hangee V
Whatabout Music: Reflection of cultural melting pot Barcelona. Tip: Amanda Jayne
Woodland Recordings: Folk, singer-songwriters, acoustic, experimental.
Good luck on your journey of discovery. If you happen upon something that captures your enthusiasm, please take the time to share your experiences in a comment.
About the author:
Fred Roberts is a contributing music editor to Ragazine.CC. He lives in Germany. You can read more about Fred in “About Us.” http://old.ragazine.cc/about-us/
Contact him at: email@example.com
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on DIY Best Music List
Renate Buser, My castle my home“,
Festival ARTORT , Schlossruine Heidelberg, September 2013
RENATE BUSER :
What Is the Essence of Time?
by Jean Paul Gavard-Perret
For Renate Buser, born in 1961 in Basel, a fiction as such can be real. In her use of fiction there is always a speculative dimension: the possible possible and the not possible possible. The Swiss artist instrumentalizes fiction in constructed situations in the same way others paint apples. However, she does not invite the spectator who is in front of her large images to take part. They are there, but they are more spectators of themselves than of the image the artist proposes in her specific protocol . She is not interested in making a spectacle, even if the landscape is suddenly different. But such photographs and “curtains” tend to intensify the presence of the image. In front of these photographs it is probably the experience of duration, the passing of time, that facilitates the conscious thought that occurs in the gap between perception and the formation of memory. Buser’s views of sunlit curtains offer the possibility of a clarion explication brought by light as well as the knowledge that present follows past, as day follows night and spring follows winter. Buser’s work enables new ways of thinking, making the viewer aware of the way he moves temporally through the streets and houses accumulating memory, perceiving life as mystifying images.
— Jean Paul Gavard Perret
JPGP: What makes you get up on morning?
RB: I love my work and my life- that makes me get up in the morning.
JPGP: What happened to your dreams as child?
RB: My childhood dreams still keep me going today.
JPGP: What did you give up?
RB: I have given up the idea of having children.
JPGP: Where do you come from?
RB: From a place called Barmelweid, 800 m above sea level and the fog belt, in the hills of the Jura, Switzerland.
JPGP: What is the first image you remember ?
RB: I remember being about 6 years old…, my friend and I climbed out on the roof top of our house, which was, for our parents, very scary.
JPGP: That is what distinguishes you from other artists?
RB: The size of my photographs.
JPGP: Where do you work and how?
RB: I work as much as possible outside, in big cities or historical sites , and inside in my studio, for conceptual work and the execution of the final pieces.
JPGP: To whom do you never dare write?
RB: I admire a lot of artists, filmmakers, writers, architects,the list is very long. Cindy Sherman is one of them.
JPGP: What music you listen while working?
RB: I dont listen to music while working.
JPGP: What is the book you love read again?
RB: Slightly out of focus, by Robert Capa.
JPGP: When you look yourself in a mirror who do you see?
JPGP: What city or place has value of myth for you?
RB: Magnesia, in Turkey
JPGP: What are the artists you feel closest?
RB: The one’ s who surprise me, for example: Omer Fast.
JPGP: What film make you cry?
RB: This film makes me cry – and laugh: Short Cuts, by Robert Altman
JPGP: What would you like to receive for your birthday?
RB: A trip to the North of Canada to see the northern lights ( Auroris Borealis)
This interview with photographer/artist Renate Buser by Jean-Paul Gavard-Perret, took place 7.September 2013. See also: Renate Buser, “Photography in Architecture, Photography of Architecture in Pavilions”, Art in Architecture, Edition Le Bord de L’Eau-La Muette 2013, ISBN: 978 2 35687 245 6
* * * * *
Marc Desgranchamps, text Eric Verhagen, Fondation Salomon;
2013, Alex, France.
The Marc Desgrandchamps Experience
by Jean Paul Gavard Perret
“What do you expect an artist to be? An imbecile who has only eyes if he is a painter, ears if he is a musician? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political human constantly alert to the heartrending, scalding and happy events in the world, molding himself in their likeness.”
Those words of Picasso could easily have been spoken by Desgrandchamps. Both are inspired by examples from the past, but powerfully engaged in its own present.
Desgrandchamp’s very engaged body of work is one with the man’s deep, powerful sense of the human condition. The painter’s practice embodies the belief that “existence precedes essence,” and that man is condemned to be free. He always allows himself to say what he feels and thinks, and to say it in his painting. His control of his actions and even destiny, as well as the values he adheres to, keeps both the man and the work free from parasites, independent of anything thrown at them by fashion or “spirit of age.”
With Desgrandchamps, painting has always the last word. It reaches beyond both the beholder and the painter himself, moving continuously from one canvas to another, yet without constituting a story. It conveys a power whose history can be realized as the consequence of its flight and its freedom.
About the reviewer:
Jean-Paul Gavard-Perrett writes about music and the visual arts. Born in 1947 in Chambery (France), he was a professor of communication at the Université de Savoie. He has published several essays, mainly about Samuel Beckett and painting, and short fiction, most recently “Labyrinthes,” Editions Marie Delarbre.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on On Location/France
Three Greek Poets
I met Cloe Koutsoubelis and Alexandra Bakonika in Facebook. We share each other’s poems and experiences. I personally met them summer of 2012 when I travelled to Greece. They both live in Thessaloniki. They are two contemporary Greek Poetesses with passionate voices that work from within today’s human condition to describe its pain and pleasure; two voices so similar and yet so different in their expression of the internal. They are two poetesses who try to blend both pain and pleasure into an acceptable concept.
Yannis Ritsos is the most prolific 20th century Greek poet. He has written 117 books of prose, poetry and translations. I first met his work as a song back in 1960ies Greece when his poem “Epitaphios” was set in music by the world famous Mikis Theodorakis. Yannis Ritsos was exiled twice in his life for his political views and this was reflected in his early poems, however as he grew into maturity his poetry shifted from the politically motivated poetry into the internationally accepted and recognized marvel that we know today. I am truly proud that his daughter Eri Ritsos was so overwhelmingly enthusiastic about my involvement in this translation and after two years of hard work the book became a reality.
xωρίς κορμί, μόνο ψυχή-καπνός για την εστία.
Είχα βέβαια και το κέντημα για παρηγοριά
ύστερα ήταν κι οι μνηστήρες
όμως έπληττα θανάσιμα με τα χοντρά αστεία.
Κάποια ανακούφιση ο Τηλέμαχος,
όμως κι αυτός έψαχνε τον πατέρα.
Ένα βράδυ έκανα έρωτα με έναν υπηρέτη.
Το σώμα του ζεστό ψωμί
έσταζε μέλι και κρασί.
Δεν με πείραξε που έγινε.
Μόνο ότι πεισματικά η Ιστορία το αγνόησε.
I waited and waited
without body, just a soul-smoke
for the fireplace.
Of course I had my yarn for company
then there were the suitors yet
I was bored with their rough jokes.
Telemachus was a relief
although he also searched for his father.
One night I slept with a servant.
His body was like warm bread
dipped in honey and wine.
It happened, it didn’t bother me.
Though purposefully history ignored it.
Η γνώμη του με κέντρισε:
«Είναι φτηνά και άνοστα τα πορνογραφικά έντυπα,
ενώ τα ποιήματά σου διεγείρουν
και συγχρόνως προκαλούν ανάταση ψυχής.
Έχω εξάρτηση, είμαι ναρκομανής με τους στίχους σου».
Ξανασκέφτηκα την άποψή του.
Διόλου αμελητέος αντίπαλος η πορνογραφία,
πανστρατιές με βουλιμία τη διαβάζουν.
Τιμή μου να βγάζω άχρηστα τα έντυπα
και την παραλογοτεχνία της.
His opinion intrigued me:
‘The porno-press is cheap and
tasteless; though your poems
arouse while they generate
certain elation for the soul.
I’m hooked on them, I yearn
for your verses like a druggie.’
I thought of his opinion again.
The porno-press isn’t a negligible
competitor, thousands of people read it.
It was my honour to prove it
useless and illiterate.
Έφυγε γρήγορα τό καλοκαίρι: Δέν προφτάσαμε.
Μεγάλα σύγνεφα κρέμονται πάνω απ’ τά βουνά
σάν προσωπεία αρχαίας τραγωδίας. Τί νά κάνουμε;
Τά παπούτσια μας, όσο παλιά, πάντοτε μάς στενεύουν λίγο.
Μάς στενεύει τό φώς, μάς στενεύει τό σύγνεφο.
Φτάνουμε μπροστά σ’ ένα ανθισμένο δέντρο
μπροστά στό ψωμί, μπροστά στό νερό,
μπροστά στό πιό αυριανό παράθυρο
κάπως αμήχανοι, λαχανιάζοντας,
μέ τήν αίσθηση μιάς αιώνιας καθυστέρησης.
Τόσο μακρυά τραβήξαμε, λοιπόν;
The summer ended quickly. We ran out of time.
Big clouds hung on top of the mountains
like masks of an ancient tragedy. What should we do?
Our shoes, whatever old, are always a bit tight.
The light is narrow, the cloud is cinched down.
We stop in front of the bloomed tree
in front of bread, water
before tomorrow’s window
somewhat embarrassed, panting
with the emotion of an eternal delay.
Have we truly come this far?
About the translator:
Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis) is a Greek-Canadian poet and author. He was recently appointed an honorary instructor and fellow of the International Arts Academy, and awarded a Master’s for the Arts in Literature. He is recognized for his ability to convey images and thoughts in a rich and evocative way that tugs at something deep within the reader. He graduated from the Panteion University of Athens with a diploma in political Sciences. He studied English Literature at Simon Fraser University. He has written three novels and numerous collections of poetry, which are steadily being released as published works. His articles, poems and short stories in both Greek and English have appeared in various magazines and newspapers in Canada, United States, Sweden, Hungary, Romania, Australia, and Greece.
* * *
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Three Greek Poets
Sindh, Indus River. Photo: Zaira Rahman
Tour of Pakistan
by Zaira Rahman
Now that 2013 has come to an end, I sit down to write the memories of an exhilarating trip across Pakistan. The ten-day journey that started in October was essentially a road trip. During these vacations we covered the provinces of Sindh, Punjab, Kyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) as well as parts of Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Before we stepped out, we had our doubts if our car would survive such a hectic schedule, with a daily average of 9 hours on the road, but surprisingly it did not fail us. Pre-travel arrangements were quite stressful; we had to safely transfer our pets to the boarding home and spell out the instructions regarding each pet specifically to the staff.
Once these settlements were made, we left before sunrise on the morning of October 17th. We chose a good day when the country was celebrating the second day of Eid-ul-Azha (Festival of Sacrifice also known as Bakra Eid). As we left Karachi to drive through Sindh, we came across very little traffic on the main motorway.
The key areas that we covered in Sindh were Indus River, Hyderabad, Hala, Nawabshah, Moro, Sukkur and Khairpur. It was perhaps the most difficult day of the journey. Sindh is terribly hot for the most part of the year; sunlight was a killer; even the shades did not help much. This was the first time that I traveled by road beyond Hyderabad so extensively. Road kill was quite the norm; we must have seen over a dozen dead dogs on the way, which only tells one of how inconsiderate passersby are. Beyond the tirelessly fast life of Karachi, I was not so excited by all that we witnessed in Sindh.
There was so much of barrenness and sadness all along. Once we moved further into the interiors of Sindh, we saw plenty of poverty and hopelessness. People in general were poor and uneducated with desolate lands and fading hopes. Roads were broken in totality and there were hardly any gas stations or tuc shops as we moved ahead. It was evident that our governments over the years have done nothing for this province. The people of Sindh fail to realize that the regional leaders they choose for so many decades are their real enemies. Simply put, Sindh was not at all inspiring. We reached Punjab before 5 p.m. that evening and our first stop was Rahim Yar Khan.
Rahim Yar Khan was just the city we needed to stay in after our exhausting journey. I was visiting this city for the first time and I was more than happy to see how developed and clean it was. We stayed at a local club with big lush green lawns, a tennis court and many swings that took us back to our childhood days.
We were so tired that we didn’t really check the city out as such, but we did pass by offices of some of the biggest MNCs, a number of schools and a university or two, as well, as we moved out of the city. People in Rahim Yar Khan were just sweet and hospitable. They spoke different dialects such as Punjabi, Saraiki, Riyasti, but had no issues conversing in Urdu with us. The food at the club was just perfect – large quantities and reasonably priced. A special mention should be given to the chicken corn soup, kebabs and chicken karhai that we had for dinner at the club.
A visit to Punjab is incomplete without visiting the heart of the province – the city of Lahore. Lahore is the second largest metropolitan city of the country. It is referred to as the “Mughal City of Gardens” due to the historic presence of gardens in and around the city dating back to the Mughal period. Although Lahore has always been considered a green and beautiful city, this time round I felt a positive vibe about it too, which I didn’t feel in my previous visits. Lahoris are full of life; Punjabi is the most commonly spoken language, although there is a great variety of dialects spoken by people who have moved here from different districts. I felt so secure shopping around quite late in the evening in the midst of Liberty market. This is something we don’t experience in Karachi – where we are always afraid of getting mugged. My sister and I bought a pair of colorful khussas (shoes) each – a must buy when one is in Lahore.
Before heading out of the city, we did a quick city tour and visited some historic places such as the Lahore Fort, Hazuri Bagh (Hazuri Garden), Badshahi mosque and Sheesh Mahal. The structures were humongous and quite exquisite. However, I do feel the authorities can certainly do more to revamp and preserve these culturally rich monuments. Most of these places have been renovated only from the front, but not in their entirety. As lovely as the front side of the mosque is, the backside has been appallingly neglected.
As per our family tradition, we had to visit the city’s zoo as well, and I am so glad that we did. Lahore Zoo is massive, clean and has some lovely animals that are well cared for. Some of the key attractions were the giraffes (Sunny and Twinkle), Suzi the elephant, a few pair of lions and their cubs. One can clearly see how Lahoris are so passionately proud of their culturally rich city. Lahore is certainly a treasure for Pakistan and a prominent tourist attraction.
We also spent a few days in the capital city of Pakistan – Islamabad. It is one of the most urbanized cities of the country. It is common for both locals as well as visitors to dine at Pir Sohawa, a tourist resort located some 17 km from Islamabad on top of Margalla Hills and I remember mentioning it in my travel post some years ago (Yet Another Visit to Islamabad…). It was fairly chilly when we reached Monal Restaurant. Sadly, this time we felt the food quality was not as amazing as it used to be, so we were left with the city view to admire.
During the city tour of Islamabad we visited Pakistan Museum of Natural History, Rawal Lake, Bani Gala, Centaurus Mall, Jinnah Super Market and Pakistan Monument. One of my favorites was the Bird Aviary Lake View Park, Pakistan’s biggest bird aviary. It was massive and well maintained. However, the Wild Life Safari was quite a disappointment. It was poorly constructed amidst the jungle; all we ended up seeing were wild bushes, tall trees and the “Be Ware of Lions’” signboard on every corner. I am sure there must be a lion or two somewhere in that jungle, but it was quite a failed project from the looks of it.
ZAIRA RAHMAN - PAKISTAN V10N1
Zaira Rahman shares her love of homeland, Pakistan, with photos and impressions gathered from a recent trip through the provinces.
Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, October 2013. Zaira Rahman.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_badshahi-mosque-lahore.jpg]60Badshahi Mosque, Lahore
Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, October 2013. Zaira Rahman.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_lahori-khussas.jpg]150Lahore, Khussas
Lahore Khussas (Typical Shoes). October 2013. Zaira Rahman.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_bani-gala-islamabad.jpg]120Bani Gala, Islamabad
Bani Gala, Islamabad. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_pakistan-museum-of-natural-history-islamabad.jpg]120Pakistan Museum of Natural History
Pakistan Museum of Natural History, Islamabad. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_neelum-river-muzaffarabad.jpg]100Neelum River
Neelum River. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_shrine-of-sayeen-sakhi-muzaffarabad.jpg]60Shrine of sayeen Sakhi Muzaffarabad
Shrine of sayeen Sakhi Muzaffarabad. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_sharda.jpg]60Sharda
Sharda. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_girls-coming-back-from-school-in-sharda-village.jpg]160Girls coming back from school in Sharda village
Girls coming back from school in Sharda village. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_sharda-fort.jpg]30Sharda Fort
Sharda Fort. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.
Our next stop was Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It is located on the banks of Jhelum and Neelum rivers with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) on the west. Though we have visited other parts of KPK in previous years, Muzaffarabad still was a treat for the soul. Our stay at PC Muzaffarabad was an absolute haven. We got the chance to visit the shrine of Hazrat Sayeen Sakhi in Muzaffarabad, which is by far one of the cleanest shrines that I have visited all of my life.
We went up to a tourist spot known as Pir Chinasi, 30 km east of Muzaffarabad on top of the hills at an altitude of 9500 feet. It was freezing cold up at the mountain but we got the rare opportunity to visit yet another shrine in one day – the shrine of the famous saint Hazrat Pir Shah Hussain Bukhari. Pir Chinasi got its name owing to Hazrat Pir who used to live at the mountain peak. It is said that he chose this unique spot because of its tranquil surroundings to form a deep, uninterrupted contact with God. This shrine has a remarkable significance to the people of the region as well as the visitors who believe their prayers are answered if they pray at this shrine.
Pir Chinasi is famous for its scenic beauty and velvet, lush green plateaus. Standing at the edge of the mountain, one can sense a certain kind of spirituality. It is certainly a place any photographer and nature lover should see with their own eyes. Pir Chinasi is ideal for hiking, trekking and camping activities. The sight and its surrounding areas are covered with pine and oak trees. The best time to visit would be an off season, somewhere around September and October, but once the snow hits the ground, it becomes impossible to visit this lovely spot on any mode of transport. I could barely stop shivering till we got some hot tea and spicy pakoras from the small restaurant at the mountain peak. The locals were welcoming and easy going.
Neelum Valley was the best part of the whole trip. Saying that it is beautiful and breathtaking would be an understatement. Deep down I feel proud that such a place exists in Pakistan, but it is sad that due to our government’s negligence the world does not know of such attractions. Throughout our journey in Azad Kashmir, we saw several groups of children and teenagers going to schools. It was overwhelming to see how these kids walk so long on these curvy, rocky mountainous routes to reach their schools daily in the cold. I don’t see that kind of enthusiasm and struggle on the faces of children in the urban cities where life is so easy. It is a wrong perception about Pakistan that there is lack of education and a dearth of institutions, though I do feel what we require is a structured, unified system of education free for all across the country.
Our final stop in Azad Kashmir was Sharda village, the de facto border of India and Pakistan. It took us a long time to reach with countless check points, however we did make it. Due to its location, the security was super tight; we were surrounded by the Pakistan army everywhere. The natives of Sharda village were extremely uncomplicated and poor but they were also the most genuinely happy group I have come across in a long, long time. One can only dream of such carefree lives although these people live in a strategically dangerous place (situated right next to the Indian border) where things can get quite unpredictable any moment. Here too, we got to see more than a few children, even little girls on the way back from their schools. We also walked on foot to see the ruins of Sharda Fort inside the village, which was quite a unique site, unknown even to most Pakistanis.
Shrine of Pir Shah Hussain Bukhari, Pir Chinasi.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK)
Just before heading back, we spent one night at Changla Gali, a tourist mountain resort town of Galyat, in the province of KPK. By the time we arrived, I was just too tired to do anything but crash for a few hours. I distinctly recall the blissful sleep which is so rare in Karachi. I remember that I experienced a similar kind of quiet and peace when I visited Nathia Gali seven years ago. There is something in the air about these unusual places that takes us away from all the worries of our regular, money-driven, mundane selfish lives.
Changla Gali was our final holiday spot after which we returned home following the same route back. By the time we got home, I had become quite the expert at navigating the paths. The motorways were brilliantly made till we stepped back into Sindh. It was a torturous and dangerous ride. Clearly, there is no monitoring here, unlike Punjab and other areas where people have no option but to follow the rules while driving on the motorway. We witnessed a gigantic blockade of trawlers but thanks to some Sindhi locals who guided us out via a shortcut, we reached to Karachi safely during day light.
These ten days were tiring, to say the least, but they definitely enlightened me. I surely learned a little something about the people, culture, places and good things of our country, of which I was so blindly unaware. However, I was also relieved to be home and to see our pets after a long break. I know I am no travel guide or travel writer, for that matter, but I felt all these lovely places that the world is unaware of should be talked about. Pakistan and its perception globally is so negative (for real and perceived reasons) that everyone misses out on the essence of this country: the richness of its culture, the hospitality of its people, a deep aura of spirituality and of course the abundance of scenic beauty, which I believe any citizen of the world, irrespective of their religion, color or nationality should visit or at least read about with an open mind and heart. I may not reach many, but even if a single person is moved by what they read here, that would leave me slightly less burdened. But for now, no more road trips.
About the author:
Zaira R. Sheikh has an MBA in Marketing from SZABIST, Karachi. She was a Media Planner at Mindshare (GroupM Pakistan) and Account Manager at Interflow Communications Pvt. Ltd. You can read more about her in About Us.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Zaira Rahman/Tour de Pakistan
“Fountain.” Marcel Duchamp, 1917.
* * * * *
Automatic Men’s Rooms
(Or, love at first flush)
by Mark Levy
Have you experienced those automatic toilets in men’s rooms and I suppose, now that I think of it, in women’s rooms? They’re the ones that know when you’re finished doing your business and they flush without your having to touch the lever. They’re installed on urinals, too. It’s the most amazing invention since indoor plumbing, if you ask me.
Sometimes, though, you stand up to stretch and they flush before you actually finish. And once, the automatic toilet didn’t flush for me even though I stood up, so I sat down again and stood up. Nothing happened. Then I waved my hand in front of the sensor. No luck. As far as I could see, there was no emergency override button to push for just such situations. So I sat down again with all of my clothes on, feeling foolish, and I got to my feet again.
Finally it flushed.
I believe it was trying to embarrass me, but the joke was on the toilet. After all, I was the only one in the stall, so no one else knew about my silly shenanigans — until just now, that is.
When you exit your stall, you find the sink, of course. Some sinks now have their own sensor. Water comes on and shuts itself off when you move your hands in and out of the sink. You can’t adjust the temperature, but that’s such a small price to pay for advanced technology.
A soap dispenser can also be automatic. Same story. But if you’re as impatient as I’ve been known to be, you might pull your hand away just before that last drop of soap is dispensed, wasting that drop at the edge of the sink and making you hope the dispenser doesn’t report back to that big soap reservoir in the sky.
The real problem arises when the faucet is automatic but the soap dispenser isn’t. Then you have to push down on the soap dispenser physically and pump it to get it to work. What’s with that? Either the bathroom is automated or it’s not, right?
Believe me, I enjoy futilely waving my hand in front of a soap dispenser while other people are standing in line behind me as much as anyone. But there comes a time when choreography becomes a pointless exercise. You don’t know if the thing is out of soap — in which case you can shift to the adjacent sink — or if you’re inadvertently dealing with a manual pumping dispenser à la the 18th century.
I recently entered a men’s room that had a big circular contraption, about four feet wide, between the door and the toilet stalls. At first, I thought I might have to use what could be a communal urinal, but it quickly dawned on me that the contraption was just a large sink. Whew, so far, so good.
I wonder how many guys are fooled into unzipping in front of what looked like a satellite antenna urinal. But as I approached the contraption to rinse my hands, nothing happened.
I started to wave my hand, both hands, in fact. Still nothing. Luckily, a gentleman was nearby, fussing with an automatic paper towel dispenser. What an idiot, I could imagine him thinking. He had that pitying look that my grandmother reserved for certain inept underlings. She even had a Hungarian word for it: sagan. It means “poor thing.” What he said was, “Buddy, just step on the bar under the sink and the water will flow.”
I guess more embarrassing things can happen in the men’s room than requesting help at a sink, but most humiliating events seem to happen to me in public, unfamiliar restrooms.
When you finally figure out the weird, over-sized faucet and sink and you rinse your hands, you approach the paper towel dispenser. Here we go again. Some of them are automatic and begin to eject a sheet of paper when your wet hand approaches them. But some extend part of a roll of paper. Am I the only one who resents having to grasp the sheet with my wet hands from the otherwise automatic paper dispenser? If it’s smart enough to sense your hand and eject paper, shouldn’t it be smart enough to cut the paper, so you don’t have to rip it from the machine?
Of course, one sheet of paper is rarely enough. Your hand can still be damp and you don’t want to exit the restroom like that. What if you bump into someone outside, like your stockbroker, and he offers you his hand to shake? You can see his expression when he meets you, just out of the men’s room, and shakes your damp hand. You’re forced to apologize, explaining, “No, it’s not what you think; it’s just water.”
Here’s the situation: you haven’t seen the fellow in four months, your stock portfolio is taking a dive, he never returns your desperate calls, and all you can talk about is the source of your wet hand. He doesn’t really believe you, anyway.
Okay, so you will need a second sheet of paper, either to finish the hand-drying job or to stockpile some for the trip home. You wave your hand in front of the damn automatic paper dispenser a second time. But the machine knows the first sheet should be enough, especially if you have small hands and you already shook them vigorously over the sink, or you rinsed only one of them, or it’s thinking maybe you’ll give up after the first sheet if it waits long enough to dispense another one. Sometimes you have to wait eight or 10 seconds before it will give you a second sheet. Who has time for that, when your stockbroker, sagan, is outside waiting to shake your hand?
About the author:
Mark Levy is Ragazine.CC’s “Casual Observer.” He is a lawyer, lives in Florida, and is an occasional contributor to National Public Radio where his columns can be heard some Saturdays around noon. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
* * * * *
Lynda Barreto Illustration
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Mark Levy/Casual Observer
“My doctor told me I was going to die at some point…”
If you can’t fit your political opinion on a bumper sticker, then keep it to yourself./ I won’t let my daughters twerk until they’re sixteen./ What came first- the chicken or the other side?/ Don’t you hate it when you’re having a really great day, and all-the-sudden out-of-the-blue you feel like murdering a Pigmy?/ Can you get fired for looking at porn on your computer if you work for an internet porn site?/ I hate everything about Twitter. That’s why I’m part of it./ I only watch movies in 1-D because I find width distracting./ I hope my new wife gets a chance to meet my current wife./ I DVR the entire season of “Biggest Loser” and then watch the episodes in reverse because I like to watch people gain massive amounts of weight./ On Facebook, I have my privacy settings at “everyone has to see my personal information even if they don’t want to.”/ I’m taking my son to a baseball game because he’s still too young to understand that it’s boring./ I’m joining the Church of Scientology because it seems like the best way to get my screenplay to Tom Cruise./ I’m thinking of having plastic surgery in order to look more like Joan Rivers. / There’s absolutely nothing funny about heart disease during one of Jay Leno’s monologues./ I retired from my job as a political lobbyist but I still want to remain unproductive./ Can God hear ALL our prayers, or just the ones directed to HIM?/ I don’t want to be rude, so I greet all women with “When is the baby due?”… just in case they’re pregnant./ When we’re young, we’re obsessed with our physical flaws. But with age & wisdom, we’re able to get used to them./ As a society, we need to finally have an honest discussion about what Mariah Carey’s race is./ Doctors told my wife she only has 3 months to live. But luckily, that gives us enough time to get divorced./ I’m having plastic surgery on my brain. I want to *think* more attractive./ When I went away to college, my mom threw out all my baseball cards, comic books, & hundred dollar bills. But now they’re worth a fortune!/ I consider myself to be a very eligible for parole bachelor./ My limbs are just getting too sore, and so I had to close my Twister account./One time I went without food for two weeks. But I survived on McRib sandwiches from McDonalds./ I’m very open about my sex addiction. I’ve told my wife AND my prostitutes./ My friend has had sex with lots of teams of women because he has always been a real team playa./ My daughter’s boyfriend is very traditional and he asked for my blessing before proposing to me./ If I lost the ability to lie, I’d finish most of my sentences with “… or not.”/ I named my son “Rosebud,” but I won’t tell him what it means until the very end of his life./ Just a reminder to have your children spayed or neutered./ My Facebook profile picture was taken ten years from now, so I look a lot younger in person./ I’m too impatient to listen to an entire monologue. But I’d be willing to go see “The Vagina Quips.”/ Does anyone know the Heimlich Maneuver?! I just swallowed a lot of carbs! / “I love U, but I need my space.”- Q’s breakup speech/ If God made man in His image, then God must be putting on some pounds./ **Spoiler Alert Warning** This tweet dies at the end./ My limo gets good gas mileage and my servants recycle… because I want to protect the environment *and* the status quo./ Things women don’t say: “I like it when a guy sings to me.”/ My wife & I are so close that we keep the door open when we go the bathroom on each other./ A friend is someone who is always there when they need you./ My doctor told me that I’m going to die at some point./ Don’t criticize your kids for listening to Justin Bieber. Remember when *we* were their age, we were listening to One Direction./ I was on match.com but she was on eHarmony. That’s how we knew we weren’t soul mates./ You know what you never hear at a restaurant? “Waitress, I’ll have the yogurt.”/ The MUSEUM museum has a wonderful new wonderful new exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum exhibit./ Tomorrow is Labor Day. Congratulations to all the women about to give birth./ Someone stole my identity. I feel bad for whoever it was because now they’re in a lot of debt./ I watch the nightly news to catch up with what’s going on in prescription drug commercials./ If you delete a tweet, where the hell does it go?!
About the author:
Galanty Miller is a contributing humorist to Ragazine.CC, writer for the Onion News Network, and professional joke writer. Read more about him in “About Us.”
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Galanty/Re-Tweets
Photo courtesy of Fresh Tracks Canada
The Canadian Caper
(Operation Duck Soup)
by Bill Dixon
I was sitting in front of my fireplace having a cold adult beverage with some friends, one of whom was my pal, Jack. Jack had worked for the same bank I had a few years earlier and we’d become good friends there. Jack and I both loved the out-of-doors life and we had started talking about taking a canoe trip in Canada when summer arrived in Ohio. I had a canoe and a Volkswagen bus. It seemed like it might be a lot of fun to plan a camping and fishing trip, and to drive up into western Ontario to do it. We could get there in one hard, long day’s driving from Columbus. The idea was to figure out a loop where we’d portage through a chain of lakes going mostly north, then catch a river flowing mostly south to get back to our departure point and the car. We’d head home from there at the end of our voyage. Duck soup, we thought.
We already had most of the gear we needed for camping. I had a two-man tent and Jack had a “Duluth pack,” which is a large, shapeless backpack, made of waterproofed heavy canvas. Its shape, or perhaps its lack of shape, makes it fairly easy to fit into about any open space in a canoe but it was an uncomfortable thing to carry on your back. In retrospect, it was rather like an overweight three-toed sloth clinging to your shoulders. The appeal of using this system was that we’d have a seventy-pound canoe for one person to carry across the portages and a fairly similar weight Duluth pack for the other person to lug. That way, we could theoretically go across a portage in one trip together. The Duluth pack guy would carry both paddles lashed together in one hand. I’d carry the canoe on my shoulders, Jack would carry the Duluth pack on his shoulders.
In terms of food, I’d be the designated camp cook. Nobody in their right mind would appoint Jack as the chef. We’d eat freeze-dried chow and at breakfast, instant oatmeal. Dinner or lunch meals would be supplemented with the fresh fish we’d catch. We’d drink water out of the lakes we went through, so we wouldn’t have to carry it in. Jack and I both liked beer but that would be for the night before we left our Canadian motel and the return trip’s “mission accomplished” celebration. We couldn’t carry beer into the woods because of the weight and disposal problems with the empties. But we could get a bottle of Canadian whiskey at the duty-free store going in and bring the empty bottle out in the Duluth pack, along with any other trash we’d accumulated. I’d pack a few squares of heavyweight aluminum foil and a plastic bottle of cooking oil so we could cook our fish in the campfire coals. I’d also bring seasonings for the fish. We’d take instant coffee and pack instant oatmeal and freeze dried fruit for breakfast, some sugar packets from a restaurant and we’d be ready to go. Jack, who’d been a navigation guy in the Navy, was going to do the compass work for us and get all the routes figured out for the portages. We bought maps, researched our route and were all planned out for the trip — at least on paper.
Prior to the actual departure, we each laid out all of our gear. This was to make sure that we weren’t carrying stuff we didn’t need and were carrying all the things we would need. We each had veto-power over the other guy’s gear selections. Jack wasn’t a tough guy to deal with but his fraternity brothers had named him “Ninny,” with some justification. He’d packed a double-bit axe that had to weigh four pounds with its protective leather cover and the over-all length was about three feet: VETO! I argued that we could gather enough dead wood to provide a small fire for food and wouldn’t need to cut any wood at all. He reluctantly set his axe aside. We each took a pack-size fishing rod and reel with us, justifying the duplication with the old “How’ll we catch fish to eat, if our only rod breaks?” argument. We also each took a waterproof match safe, same argument. I had to leave my binoculars behind because most of the time we’d be in brushy places and wouldn’t get much value out of the extra weight. Anything we were likely to see wouldn’t require binoculars to identify. We took “mummy” sleeping bags: they didn’t take much space, and we would pack them in trash bags to keep them dry. One cook kit, GI style, was enough to cook up our freeze-dried meals and our oatmeal, which we would eat out of sturdy paper hot cups, then burn the cups in our campfire. Our fish meals, we’d eat with our mess kit forks, right off of the aluminum foil they were cooked in. Rain gear, mosquito repellant, duct tape, compass? Check! Clothes were going to be the worn-out, ratty, disposable kind. After a week in the woods, we’d put them in a trash can at the motel we would be departing from to head home, along with the used fish foil and any other trash we picked up or had packed into the woods. We knew we’d need rope. We took seventy-five feet of braided nylon, 250 pound capacity.
Jack scared up a detailed trip description of the route we’d settled on taking, somewhere. We’d park in a public access area, along the river and leave a note with our names, addresses, planned route, the dates of our departure and expected return, on the dashboard of the mini-van. The key to the van was placed on top of the right front tire so it wouldn’t get lost. I would keep an extra key in my billfold. We got various maps and both of us read and reread the trip guide Jack had gotten. We would travel north by canoe through a dozen or so small lakes, two of which were connected by a stream described as “clear and easily navigable.” The rest of the series of lakes had overland portages of five hundred yards or less. When we arrived at the last lake, we would then portage about a hundred yards overland to the river which ran back south and within a short haul of our parked car, roughly twenty miles downstream. The whole trip was about ninety miles, total. Again, duck soup!
We were as excited as ten-year-olds when we took off. Somewhere around Grayling, Michigan, one of the bungee cords holding the canoe on the roof of my VW snapped loose, and fired itself across the centerline and into the windshield of a big truck headed the opposite direction. We decided that we’d solve the problem at the next pull-off. I had extra pieces of rope and additional bungees in the van, and we quickly made sure our canoe was better secured to the foam roof mounts before we headed back onto Interstate 75 and before an angry truck driver with a tire iron showed up. The rest of our drive was fairly uneventful. At the border, we selected a bottle of Canadian whiskey at the duty-free store and a few hours northward, found an inexpensive motel fairly close to our departure point. We said an emotional goodbye to cold beer at the motel and left the warm beer in the van for celebrating our triumphant return from our adventure.
Jack was an enthusiastic early riser. It was still dark when we rolled out of the last warm beds we’d see for six days, and went to a convenience store that the motel owner had recommended for the last decent coffee we’d have for a week. Actually, it wasn’t all that good but it was similar to decent coffee in terms of color, price, and temperature. We drank it. It was just getting light when we found the unpaved road to the public parking area we were looking for and we selected a spot to leave the van. There were no other cars there. On the actual trip we only encountered voyageurs, as we now considered ourselves, on one portage path we took several days into the trip. We saw just two fishermen at a distance, in the largest lake we paddled through. Apparently other potential fellow travelers had seen the weather forecasts and thought better of going for a canoe trip.
We were on a scheduled week away from work and were going, come hell or high water, as they say. We offloaded, shouldered our loads, and headed up the path to the first lake we’d cross. The rain was fairly light, then actually paused as we got to the next portage on the far side of the first lake. The mosquitos were fierce, but stayed roughly an inch from our bug repellent-smeared skin. If an area of skin got rubbed by a strap or an article of clothing, the bug dope would wear off and the mosquitos would descend on our exposed flesh. I was lugging a canoe through a wooded area, and had a rain parka with a drawstring hood that rubbed the skin around my face. On the first portage we went through, the mosquito repellent gave out where the parka hood rubbed, in a thin band from chin to forehead. I looked at my reflection in the water at the end of our first portage and it looked like I’d been struck with a whip: a red ring of mosquito bites circled my face. I slapped on a fresh application of repellent, as soon as we slid the canoe into the water. The bugs never got any less numerous or less aggressive but I got used to them, more or less. Jack seemed to be less desirable to them, or perhaps less willing to bitch about them. We pushed off, into to a very calm lake, and once we got fifty yards or so out from shore, the bugs were fairly tolerable or not in evidence at all.
It was wonderfully quiet on the lake. I could hear the canoe swishing through the glassy surface of the water and our paddle noise but little else other than distant bird songs from the shore. There were no other noises that I could discern. Down in the clear water, I could see boulders the size of my Volkswagen and fish darting here and there either chasing food or fleeing to avoid becoming it. It was very serene and neither of us talked as we glided across the still water of the first lake. Jack was never much of a talker but I usually made up for it. Now, however, I was unable to be very talkative because I didn’t want to disturb the amazing silence around us. Perhaps an hour passed. Jack bent over his compass. He pointed his finger and we turned slightly to our right. In a few hundred yards, we saw the pull-out spot for our next portage and we headed for shore. The portage was a fairly short one and the next lake was the smallest one we’d be crossing. We left the gear in our canoe and dragged it, one on each side, since the portage we were on seemed to have no difficult slopes, according to our topographic map. We got to the second lake and began crossing when the rain started again. We finished crossing the small lake to the next portage point and pulled our canoe out. We were hungry and wet. We decided to eat something. Granola bars seemed like the best choice, since we could eat them in the rain, and we wouldn’t care if they got damp in the process. As we were gnawing on them, we heard thunder in the distance.
We looked at one another and decided that we ought to immediately do the portage in front of us. We then set up our camp for the night before the rain rolled in. That should put us on a rocky point jutting into the lake with the wind coming at us over open water. That, theoretically, would blow the bugs away from us, rather than deliver them to us from a nearby brushy area. The pull-out from the small lake was steep enough that we had had to empty the canoe and pull it up to the path with our rope, then have one person shoulder the Duluth pack and have the other pull him up the steep ascent. Then we headed for our planned campsite. Jack, who had been pretty quiet, suddenly spoke up: he wanted to switch jobs. He apparently had decided that the canoe was lighter than the Duluth pack and since he was smaller…etc. That was fine with me. I’d weighed the fully-packed Duluth pack before I put it in the VW and knew that it was nine pounds lighter than what the canoe weighed, according to the specifications printed on a label in the canoe’s bow. Also, the canoe was a pain in the ass to navigate the trail with, going through the wet brush, balanced upside down on my shoulders with my hands on each gunnel to balance it and steer it through the brush and trees. I cheerfully helped Jack shoulder it and threw on the Duluth pack. I was just thinking that the canoe at least kept the rain off my glasses, when, after about a half hour of our last portage of the day, I noticed that Jack was losing altitude. He appeared to be about a foot shorter. Simultaneously, he announced that he’d prefer to go back to his old job, the Duluth pack. I put down the pack and trotted up to shoulder the canoe. Jack stood up straight, tentatively, and silently relinquished the canoe with no sign of remorse.
When we got to our rocky point the rain had started then slacked off, but we could still hear distant thunder. There was a likely-looking spot for a tent facing the breeze and the water. We were able to get several tent pegs driven between the stones on the rocky flat spot we’d chosen. A big, weather- beaten deadfall provided a secure tie-down for the other side of our tent. It seemed like a good time to do a little fishing after everything was set up including a fire ring and the evening firewood gathered. We took the now-empty canoe into lake number two and started casting artificial baits along the shoreline. After two fishless hours, we decided that freeze dried food would be just fine. The water along the shorelines was somewhat murky and had minor debris floating in it, so we filled our canteens with the clear, clean water in the center of the lake, and paddled back in the impressive silence that surrounded us. We got a fire going, promptly, and it cheered us up. There was plenty of dead wood in the trees we’d hiked in from, to feed it. The freeze dried food, tuna & noodles, was fairly grim stuff, but it was better than nothing at all. The Canadian whiskey, however, was excellent, and gave us the courage to persevere. We just drank it out of the bottle, passing it back and forth like two (damp) downtown bums on a spree, sans the usual wrinkled paper bag. We could hear loons calling in the distance and if it hadn’t been so cloudy, the stars would have been magnificent.
It was about two AM when the major-league storm rolled in with lots of lightning and thunder, then fairly furious rain. Within a few minutes, everything we had with us was soaked. We talked in low tones, and decided that about all we could do was weather it. There wasn’t any place any dryer than our tent in the vicinity, so….we tried to go back to sleep. At some point, the storm passed and we were awakened by strong sunlight in a nearly cloudless sky. We hung the sodden sleeping bags over our length of rope, in the sun, and I made breakfast: oatmeal with freeze-dried fruit and damp sugar, accompanied by black instant coffee. It was a humble repast but the only game in town, as they say. After breakfast we burned the paper from meal, dumped water on the fire, brushed our teeth in a murky shoreline water made worse by the previous evening’s storm, and peed back in the woods, off the path.
We were looking forward to the next leg of the trip. Once we crossed the large lake we were on, we had a short portage to the “clear and easily navigable stream” promised in Jack’s guide book. The guide promised a steep cliff on our left side with numerous hawks’ nests. We paddled leisurely down the aforementioned stream that linked us to the next lake. It was a beautiful day and our spirits were high. It turned out that the guide book had probably been printed when Jack and I were in high school, well before the beavers had dammed the stream, but we didn’t know that just yet. The clear and easily navigable stream was now mostly a large shallow lake choked with cattails and water lilies. Jack’s compass work would be complicated by wet meadows of tall cattails and winding shallow channels through huge areas of water lilies. There were no lines of sight, so we would be navigating by compass. There was nothing to do but push off into the shallow beaver lake and do our best.
It was like the Wizard of Oz, when the movie turns suddenly from black and white to Technicolor. As we moved into the lake, we were transported into a strange and magical land. Everywhere we looked, there were acres of huge yellow water lilies in full bloom, and outside of an occasional beaver slapping his tail on the water as an alarm signal, the only sound was the loud and constant buzzing of hundreds of thousands of large, slow-moving bumblebees. It was dreamlike and I just wanted to stop and absorb it for hours. It was one of the most beautiful and dramatic scenes I’ve ever beheld. I knew that if we left it, I would miss it, and never see anything like it again. Jack wasn’t that fond of bees or of sitting still, though, and after a few minutes he wanted to move on. He was right, of course. We didn’t know what we were heading for when we got to where the beavers had dammed the stream and created the magical lake full of water lilies and bee songs. The buzzing was so loud that it masked the bird songs. It was absolutely wonderful.
We pushed on through dead-ends and islands, beaver lodges and cattails, following the compass as much as we could. There were no straight lines there. Thanks to Jack’s compass work, we eventually got to the beaver dam. It was about ten feet high at the tallest spot and blocked the narrow stream channel at a spot perhaps forty feet across. The dam released a trickle of water, ten feet below us, down at the new channel it had created where a deeper stream had once been. The stream was choked with deadfalls. Water depths varied from a few inches to holes three- or four-foot deep. It was hellish to get through. We lined the canoe down the face of the beaver dam empty and scrambled down to the shallow stream with the Duluth pack between us. All charitable thoughts about beavers dissolved on that transition. We then had to walk the loaded canoe down the trickle, pushing or pulling it as we went, maneuvering it around, under or over deadfalls with one of us up front, one of us in back, on opposite sides. It was slow, torturous work. Periodically, we’d walk into a hole and sink in up to our armpits. Branches would slap our faces: underwater snags of various sharp branches would cut our skin. We were exhausted when we got to the next lake. It seemed like miles but it was probably only a few hundred yards of profound misery. We didn’t realize that we were covered with leeches from the hips down until we got to the lake. We’d gone from the Land of Oz to The African Queen.
We pulled the canoe to the edge of the new lake, and stripped to the skin. Leech removal is pretty disgusting work. We each removed all the leeches we could see on our own bodies by pinching them between thumb and index finger and jerking them. Sometimes the heads stayed on briefly but usually they ripped right off. Blood ran freely down our legs and ankles. Then we yanked the ones we couldn’t see ourselves off of each other. I remarked to Jack that his butt was particularly unattractive in that process but he refrained from comment, mostly. We rinsed our shorts and underpants and pulled them on over our bloody legs. We were a mess and we now were dealing with the mosquitos in new body regions. We decided that the day was pretty well shot, that we were pooped out, and that we should set up our second campsite as soon as we located a good spot. We found one near the next portage site that apparently had been used by others: there was already a blackened fire ring and a fairly level site facing the water and the westerly wind. We set up the tent, hung out our wet sleeping bags and paddled back into the lake to resupply our water. We headed out to catch our dinner as soon as we gathered our evening firewood from the woods.
We were pleasantly surprised to begin catching some smallmouth bass on small artificial baits. I was hoping for perch or walleyes but we didn’t catch any. I find them considerably better tasting than smallmouths. We caught enough bass in about an hour for a good dinner, though, and were thankful for them. I filleted the fish and seasoned the boneless slabs of meat, then wrapped them in two square pieces of aluminum foil with a little cooking oil. As was usual, we hoisted the Duluth pack about twelve feet off the ground by a rope tossed over a branch and tied off to a second tree. This was to discourage bears from eating our food supply and destroying everything else in the pack in the process. I got the fire going by using dry bark and twigs until some deadfall wood could catch fire. Jack set up the tent and turned the mummy bags to get them marginally dryer. We brought out our bottle and rolled a semi-dry log to face the water with our tent behind us. We were covered with mosquito bites and leech wounds, numerous scuffs and scrapes, and were still bleeding in spots but we felt pretty good about getting the canoe hauled into the new lake. We were beat. The fish tasted great and the Canadian whiskey restored our enthusiasm as we sipped it by the fire. The breeze kept the mosquitos down, or our smelly bodies discouraged them. We were content.
After an hour of chatting by what remained of our campfire, we decided to hit the (damp) sack for the night. As Jack was kissing the bottle goodnight, I turned to walk toward the woods to take a leak and saw the black bear looking back at me, thirty feet away. It scared the hell out of both of us! I howled and started throwing rocks at the bear, rushing at him. I don’t think I hit him with any of the rocks but he must have been partially blinded by the firelight, because as he sped away into the woods. He ran into a tree, and veered off at speed, my rocks bouncing past him. Going to sleep that night wasn’t easy, except for Jack. He wasn’t awake for more than a couple of minutes after he crawled into his damp sleeping bag. I wasn’t able to get much shut-eye, though. I don’t know if the bear slept at all. Having a large, drunken, roaring biped with his pecker hanging out charging him, hurling stones, was probably profoundly unsettling for the poor brute. As for Jack, well, he acted as if nothing had happened. Go figure, huh? In the morning, we ate our oatmeal, drank our coffee and pushed on after bathing in the lake and running another leech check. Leeches and beavers and bears: oh, my.
Frankly, there weren’t very many more notable events in the voyage. We went through our routine of portaging through a series of lakes until we got to the last lake before taking the river “home” to the VW bus, and decided to camp one more night. We’d had light rain off and on a couple more times but no worthwhile adventures and we were going to camp one last night, then paddle south with the current in the morning. We’d finished off the bottle the second night we tested its restorative powers and put the empty in the trash bag with the litter we’d created or picked up in the Canadian woods, and had two more fish dinners, lakeside. We were never completely dry on any part of the trip but we’d paddled a long way, had some excitement to tell our mates about and overcome some limited adversity en route. We’d seen some beautiful scenery. The vision of that beaver lake is still with me, if I shut my eyes and cast my vision back through the years. Jack probably recalls the bees and the leeches, mostly.
We’d set up the tent and were getting ready to sleep in our new camp when we heard thunder in the distance, off to the west. We held a huddled, brief conference and both voted to paddle back to our car. There was moonlight that illuminated the river, nearby and Jack was confident that if the light held out for an hour or two, we could paddle to our car with the help of the current pushing us along. We packed up, loaded, and shoved off. Jack had smuggled a small head lamp in his rain jacket and by some miracle, it still worked. He figured that he could consult the map and spot a prominent (bus-sized) partially submerged rock, about a half mile from our last pull-out, at the car, especially if we hustled. The storm was edging closer. The thunder was louder and the lightening more frequently visible, but the rain held off.
I was the stern paddler and bent into every stroke. The current was pushing us at a good clip and we were moving right along. I asked Jack if he had any projection on when we’d be getting back to our parked minibus and he flipped on his headlight and regarded the map. “Ought to be coming up pretty soon,” he replied. About twenty seconds later, we hit it, midstream, and damn near got tossed out of the canoe. Luckily, my canoe was a sturdy fiberglass model from L.L. Bean and it scratched the keel up but didn’t knock a hole in it. We resettled and picked our way slowly along the shoreline. There was the VW. We hauled ashore, threw the Duluth pack in the back of the VW. We hoisted the canoe with its foam padding blocks snapped onto the gunnels and started roping and tying it down just as the downpour arrived. We got soaked again, of course, but we got the canoe secured and headed for the highway, southbound. In about forty or fifty miles, we spotted a run-down little motel with about six cabins around it. There was a flickering blue light in the back of the office. The owner was in, watching the tube. We banged on the door until he stumbled out, smelling a little like our empty whiskey bottle. We struck a deal and paid in cash for a night: our first night inside for a while. I took off my clothes and sat down on the bed. It broke in half, midway between the head and footboard.
“Oh, hell,” Jack said, “I’m still dressed. I’ll go get the owner to move us.” No, this’s fine,” I said, and pushed the broken bed against the wall with the mattress flopped on the floor. Jack shrugged. I slept like a baby. In the morning, we stuffed our filthy, bloody sleeping bags and clothes into the dumpster, along with the trash. We got some coffee, or something fairly similar to coffee, and headed south. Duck soup.
About the author:
Bill Dixon is author of “Disorderly Conduct,” a book about the group he hung with in the 1960s at Ohio State, and “Guitar Collecting,” a niche book about building a collection with minimal investment. Besides being a writer, his varied background includes artist, bank CEO, teacher, bartender/bouncer, zoo keeper, iron worker, political campaign manager, musician, real estate manager and smuggler of Russian Icons out of Eastern Europe. He spends his time these days pretty much between Maine and Florida. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* * * * *
Walter Gurbo, Drawing Room,
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Bill Dixon/From the Edge
View from the North
by J.H. Mae
The first snowflakes of winter have started to fall. Sometimes, the first snowfall comes in a crushing, swirling blizzard around Halloween. This year, it’s arriving gradually, with tiny flakes that float in the November air and dust the grass like confectioner’s sugar.
Summer lingered well into early October, gratefully. But once the wind took away the autumn leaves, the cold came and with the cold came the comments: “Guess winter’s on its way!” “I’m not ready for the white stuff.” “I wish I could move to Florida.”“Cold out there!” People act like the snow is a surprise. Of course, this is all small talk with little meaning, meant to fill awkward spaces as people wait in line at the grocery store or in the elevator.
The ushering in of the cold means we all have to change gears; there are preparations to be made. Fill the fuel tank in November, put up the thermal curtains on the windows and pack up the garden. Outfit the car with snow tires and put a survival kit in the trunk. Restock candles and canned food and gallons of water. Dig out winter coats, sweaters, mittens, snow boats, wool socks, thermal underwear.
Most importantly, we ready for five solid months spent indoors, carefully planning any outings based on the 10-day weather forecast. Planning a shopping trip for this weekend? Well, if a squall is coming in, that will have to be postponed.
Winter is terribly inconvenient.
In early January 1998, five small ice storm systems converged over the far northeast US and stalled for 80 hours, dropping freezing rain and drizzle across Eastern Ontario, southern Quebec, northern New York and northern New England all the way to Maine. I was almost 15 years old at the time; my father was away on a Tour of Duty so my mother, 12-year-old sister and I faced two weeks alone without power.
I remember feeling small and that nature was this enormous, indifferent force. One night, after days of freezing rain, the trees began to crack under the weight of two inches of ice. The three of us huddled in my mother’s bed in our pajamas, holding each other and listening to the trees break and crash to the ground, invisible in the dark.
By morning, the power was out. A cold, dark house void of the constant electric humming of modern life is an eerie thing.
In a pale dawn light and with an alien world outside, we packed up our necessities – including our favorite Christmas presents – and walked down the road to my Aunt Kathy’s house; she had a generator. One thing resounds in my memory of that walk: silence – eternal and penetrating. The snow was encased in ice; it covered the road so thickly that you couldn’t discern asphalt from farm field. Our feet slid dangerously – we were instructed to skate, not walk. In the distance, trees continued to crash and fall, the birch branches curved like gymnasts to the ground under the weight of the ice .
The world had transformed into a black and white photo: white snow cut by the intermittent scratches of black trunks and those bizarre bent branches. It was frightening but beautiful.
The next two weeks were spent cut off from the world, dependent upon generators, washing in eight ounces of water, swallowed by deep darkness and deeper quiet. We busied ourselves with conversation, puzzles, books and Discmans with draining batteries, and of course, arguments.
The Ice Storm is a rather drastic account of winter’s worst but it can still be a nightmare in the best of seasons. Blizzards hit during the morning commute. At the end of the day, a foot of wet snow covers the cars, which takes 20 minutes and a pair of soggy gloves to sweep off. Everyone must shovel a walkway to the driveway, and then plow the driveway, just to get anywhere. People rely on state, county and town to keep the roads clear; usually, they fail. And heating the house in winter requires many to choose between warmth and medicine.
But all this isn’t unexpected. It happens every year, November to March, and yet people still moan and groan on its approach, as if that can reset time back to May. People kick, spit and fight their way to the first snowstorm.
This routine, of a coming winter and the pointless dread it inspires, mimics the rhythm of life.
Summer gives us the good days, where we frolic in sunshine, strain our muscles in the garden, play and drink lemonade on the patio. Autumn is beautiful, the death of the leaves a brilliant display that eases us into winter with a smile. The cold returns us to reality, forces us to prepare and survive and sacrifice; it makes us suffer under a dim sun and eight feet of snow. And then spring is a joy, the world awakening gradually, the days growing longer and the sun stronger; people begin to feel a resurrection in their bones and mind.
Isn’t that life? We live through sun and storm, in turn.
But people insist on complaining, evidently blind to the fact that no level of indignation can make the snow melt. People who complain about the weather are unable to accept the great forces of the world, forces that do not sway according to the whims of man. They can’t just go with the flow.
I can understand the distaste for winter. It drastically changes everyday life. We spend five minutes putting on warm clothes just to go out to the mailbox. Dirty, melted slush coats everything, everywhere. The wind blows at 10 below and peels off unprotected skin. By the end of winter, we feel imprisoned, powerless to move the seasons forward faster, out of the deep snow and into sunshine.
People complain because winter bosses them around. But then again, isn’t it a reminder that forces exist outside our own selfish minds? That we are not alone but part of a much bigger world that turns and turns without our interference? I take comfort in the notion of being small. The ice storm reminded me of my smallness, of the immensity of the world around me. It snapped me out of my teenage belief that my problems were the most important thing in the world.
I don’t fight the winter because there are only two brief windows of time during the year that I truly don’t like. The first are those weeks between the sudden disappearance of autumn leaves and the inevitable arrival of snow. I don’t like the bare, brown trees and brown grass. The second is the time after the snow melts, which renders the entire world a landscape of brown mud and soggy grass before spring officially arrives. Snow makes the world look fresh and clean; it insulates the air from biting cold; it’s a reminder that I can relax. There isn’t much you can do in the winter but stay inside and stay warm.
Winter – and any hardship – makes the summer warmer, the sun brighter, the long days longer. We can’t have freedom without imprisonment, warm without cold, light without dark. And it doesn’t matter what we do, the snow will fall even if we don’t want it to. Best just watch the flakes float to the ground, graceful as dancers, and marvel in their beauty.
Or, you can just go to Florida, and leave everyone else in peace.
About the author:
J.H. Mae is a feature journalist, columnist and short fiction writer based in rural New York.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on JH Mae/View from the North