Sunday, May 22, 2016

Unicorns, Mermaids and the Saving Grace of Conversation

Friday and part of yesterday I spent the afternoon on a deck leaning over the Uzupis river, which cuts through the eastern edge of Vilnius. Uzupis has made itself its own republic. You can get your passport stamped. The constitution is printed in 26 languages and is available for free in the square where the angel statue sits high above. The poplar trees give off their cotton-like daytime stars, floating through the sunlight. The river takes everything away. I spent two hours talking to a Malaysian traveller, who also goes everywhere on his own, is also unmarried, He was amazed at the idea of a travelling writer. 

I'm trying to figure it out; what I am learning during this trip? That the body carries granite and marble inside itself. That rivers are an unending exhale. That one can dive under the green surface of a forest, and find a whole world of flags and pain and seeds and blueberry bushes. Some of the trees were probably seedlings when the atrocities happened. And maybe my grandparents heard gunshots in their sleep one night, in LA, and thought of what was only fragmentedly and inaccurately being reported. And they woke and lay under sheets, and moved their single beds closer for one night, and no birds sounded outside the window where the fields were being turned to houses, and in their guilt and loneliness made my father. And it was too much to bear so they never did it again.

In Uzupis everyone has the right to heat and light and a tiled roof.

In Uzupis everyone has a right to be unhappy.

The tightrope I've been walking while travelling has grown to a wooden platform. Late at night I fall off it and then reverse gravity brings me back on by morning. There was no one washing their clothes in Uzupis' river. There were many sitting on the deck and speaking normally, and one woman looked at me as if she might understand. The river was a constant small clutter, one foot deep. If you, reader, were there I would have thrown myself off of it and astonished the other patrons, landing like a flying squirrel but on my back, smiling, unhurt. This is how I feel. 

Last year at this time I was spread-eagled on a bed in Ajijic, waiting for night. I miss those days. I miss everything that I have done that has been beautiful. I miss canoeing and being on the street in Buenos Aires while men whisper obscene compliments to me as I pass, and running the Bowron lakes river in the canoe and being in an MA seminar and crying over Zwicky's work, and presenting a paper on Todd Inlet, and feeling sick in the old Banff dining hall before I went to my studio and wrote The Reflecting Pool. I miss my father. I’m in this river that’s pushing me directions I never anticipated. I didn’t see this curve. 

I won't be so naive as to ask what might be so frightening about an educated people, that would lead whole nations to turn against them. There is nothing I could do here to satisfy the past. I can walk and re-walk the streets, waiting to feel my grandfather's presence. I can take pictures of little shreds of hebrew through barred windows. I can talk to people, I can look at the river which is the same river and not the same river. Which, according to the constitution of Uzupis, has the right to flow. 

I sat down at a table yesterday afternoon and began to listen to a conversation between an Israeli man and his distant young relative, who has Jewish blood but has grown up Christian. The boy, 19, was trying to figure out how things are in Lithuania now, and telling his relative, who was older than his voice sounded when I snuck a glance at him, about how and what they learned about the Holocaust, and how the unschooled Lithuanians from the villages were sent east to Russia during the cold war as slaves. When the boy left, the Israeli, Michael, turned to me. “So what is your story? You were listening in to our conversation, yes?” He was smiling sadly. I told him and he told me he was In Lithuania for the same reason, but because he speaks both Hebrew and German, he’s been able to access archival material on both his father and grandfather -- stories that he was told nothing about during his childhood. 

Michael's father survived the Kaunas ghetto, one of only hundreds. Then he survived the executions in a field outside of town, one of only six, by not stepping forward when his name was called. He was always well dressed, Michael said, and traded his coat for a favour with a Lithuanian, who had him requested for another post before the next execution could take place. Then he survived the work camps in Germany during the last years of the war, where Jews were sent back to build a bunker to construct jet planes, which Hitler thought would turn the war back to his favour. When the decision was made to bring Jews back in, Himmler apparently complained, saying, “I just made Germany Jew-free!” “Don’t worry, we are going to work them to death,” Hitler answered. When Michael’s father was liberated at the end of the war he weighed 70 pounds. His first wife died in a concentration camp. He went to Israel, married again and had children, and never spoke of his experiences again. If it had not been for his father's first wife's death, Michael told me, he would not have been born. "I owe my life to the murder of my father's first wife."

Michael, a filmmaker, learned the story through an archivist, a historian who had been working for years on the Kaunas ghetto. He leaned in close to me and his blue eyes were the same shade as my father’s, “The thing is, I wish I could cry, but I have not been able to so far on this trip. But the trauma lives on in me.” When we said goodbye we hugged one another; it was my first hug in nearly three weeks and he wrote me the next morning to confirm how much the meeting had meant to both of us.

He also showed me photos of Stolperstein, bronze monument bricks set into the stone sidewalks and streets in Germany, as well as many other countries, which name not only the Jews that lived in the house they are set in front of, but also the place and way that they died. “Humiliated then executed, June 1941,” states one in Michael’s photos. He told me they are everywhere, all around the city. To him, it is a sign of true repentance and acceptance of responsibility that he does not see yet in Lithuania. I would agree. There are signs for the ghetto, and the holocaust museum makes no bones about the responsibility the Lithuanians had in carrying out liquidation of Jews, but the details are missing. The people are unnamed and the ghetto itself has very little left that can be understood without a guide. The stolperstein was the first thing in my life that has made me interested in going to Germany. 

So I spent, in Vilnius, a lot of time by the little river that flows between Vilnius old city and the Republic of Uzupis. It flows at about 3 km an hour and its incessant inevitability that cannot be stopped both shakes me to my core and calms me. There’s a unicorn sculpture right above it on the Uzupis side, and a mermaid sculpture set into the stone bank on the other. As if I’m in some alternate world where the best, most wondrous qualities in people might be possible. Like the Lithuanian man, who, during the war, when called over by a Jew standing in a line, took the gift of Michael’s relative's watch and rings right before he entered a gassing truck and was killed, and managed to return them to the family after the war, so that they passed to his father, and then to him. Or Kerry Keys, the American poet who, despite his Irish background, has learned more about the Jewish history of this area than almost anyone else I talked to, and met me for a drink, and listened to my stories, and gave me a dozen names and introductions and book titles to help me on my research. 

Yesterday I medicated, to get a break from the insane anxiety and buzzing grief and joy that has been alternating in me like a river. I also drank less, and walked even more, and rode a bike, and listened to all of the music that Music in the Street Saturday brought to life. Every second street closed. Every corner with a theremin player or a fiddle or three women singing traditional minor key songs, or a flamenco guitarist or a modern Vilnius band that sounded like a cross between Sigur Ross, the Pixies and Florence and the Machine. The woman’s voice was iconic; she was shaking, afterward, as she wrote the band's name in my phone: D’Mask. Everyone was out walking the streets. Bars were open on in the squares in Kiosks everywhere. A brief rainstorm sent people scurrying under the nearest awning; no one went home or stopped listening. Families with children were everywhere, the women not looking harried and overworked but happy and free with their kids, the fathers involved. I'll say it again: I don’t understand Europe, but I love it. 

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