Tag Archives: humanity

One Summer in The-Middle-of-Nowhere

Victor had five fingers. All told.

On both hands.

He surrendered the other five to a half bottle of vodka and a nap on an icy walk home from the post office cum liquor store, one exceptionally cold winter evening. Or so the story went, according to the post office ladies (about a mile from our cabin). He also had one mean reputation in the nearby village …

 

1.

I Vant To Be Alone … Oh Wait, No I Don’t

In 1996, in the throes of an existential crisis—convinced that, as a single mother, once my two young daughters were grown, I would enjoy a life with no electricity, no running water and no heat source—I bought a log cabin on 10 acres of land, in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia. At the time of my purchase, I was living, in the quaint university town of Tartu, Estonia, which I loved. But I envisioned, spending my post child-rearing life in absolute seclusion in my rural homestead: lighting a lot of candles, firing up a wood stove and writing, longhand, until the cows came home …

In 1998, I met a Latvian man who took my breath away.

In fairly short order, my daughters and I moved down to Riga, Latvia, and bought the upper half of a Tsar Russian mansion, as a restoration project. Goodbye solitary life in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia; hello exciting new relationship in the hopping metropolis of Riga, Latvia! It was a far cry from the changes I’d envisioned for myself, but I was over the moon with discovering a new city and a new love, at this stage of my life.

A year later, in the midst of gutting our kitchen, in Riga—which coincided with the beginning of the Baltic region’s very short summer—I remembered my log house nostalgically and decided that it would be a great summer retreat for the girls and me, with my partner visiting when his work schedule allowed. We could live free of noise, dust, navigating-debris-on-our-way-to-the-bathroom, and all of the other inconveniences of construction. Besides, we wouldn’t need heat in the summer, just some sleeping bags; the white nights of summer would furnish more than enough light; and all we needed was a decent bucket and rope, for the well, to have water. We were set for our log cabin adventure.

Well, I was anyway.

Ignoring the moans and groans from my tween and teenage daughters, Jessica and Erin, I packed our minimal earthly needs, for an entire summer, into our 15 year-old BMW: clothing, towels, wash cloths, sleeping bags, a tent (just in case the mosquitoes got too bad inside the house), silverware, dishes and some limited personal items, most of which were packed into a large Rubbermaid tub which I planned to use for bathing. We hoped for an adventure that would not include snakes, venomous spiders or criminals roving around the countryside (as an American I had deep-rooted fears of bad guys with guns behind trees and in bushes).

So with a prayer, for our old car, on my lips, we headed north to our tiny log cabin, the all-night sun and—unbeknownst to us at the time—some gentle shifts in perception.

What we were not expecting this adventure to include was Old Victor.

 

2.

Life In the Grass Lane

The narrow, mile long, meandering dirt lane that led to our cabin, began just past the village post office, and was barely distinguishable from the wild land that it slightly interrupted. Completely impassable, by car, from late autumn through spring, it took all of my driving experience to negotiate, even in summer. A few ruts and some barely visible rocks were the only reminders that there may have once been a road to our house.

Several meters past our cabin, on the opposite side of the lane, was a dilapidated shack that had been almost entirely reclaimed by nature.

Initially I’d thought this neighbouring shack was abandoned and asked the sellers of my property if I might buy it; more for the property than the building. I was informed that it wasn’t for sale and that a fiercely private hermit lived in the shack. I was further told not to bother him and he’d show me the same courtesy; he was unfriendly and pretty much lived in a bottle of vodka. I was assured that I probably wouldn’t hear from him. Ever. And certainly shouldn’t count on him for anything. I remembered, however, at the settlement table, almost as a footnote, the seller had said, with a chuckle: “Your well is the only access Victor has to clean water, so you might see him occasionally scurrying across your property.”

So the hermit had a name: Victor.

A Side Note

When my parents visited me in Estonia in 1996, my mother’s most shocking observation, on day one of her visit, was the complete absence of laughter and smiles on the streets of Tartu. I attempted to explain to her that this was a cultural norm; it was not indicative of unhappiness with their lack of material possessions or depression and she had no need to feel sorry for them. I told her that if she watched carefully, she’d see subtle smiles and expressions of enjoyment everywhere in Estonia. My mother, however, ignoring me and determined to let her little American light shine walked through the streets smiling broadly at everyone, for the remainder of her stay. She said she was giving them permission to smile and be happy as they worked their way out of their poverty. She was letting them know that the USSR was gone and they could leave their depression behind because life would improve … When I told my Estonian friend, Peeter, what my mother was doing, he replied, quite seriously: “Did you explain, to her, that they only think that she’s mentally unstable?”

I had not.

It was challenging for Americans to understand the facial expressions of Estonian culture, as well as, how a country in the midst of reinventing itself and living in relative poverty, could actually be happy. I was not prepared to spend hours attempting to enlighten my seventy-three year-old mother on her two-week holiday. I understood the belief that her worldview was correct: people need lots of material things to be happy and a broad smile is a universally accepted sign of happiness. With an underlying belief being: Once they see the light all people eventually come around to experiencing and expressing joy in the way that my mother expected them to.

 

2.

Life in The Grass Lane

(continued)

 

Image 16-08-2018 at 16.09

Erin And a Visiting Friend Playing in Our Rhubarb Patch.

 

My daughters and I moved into our log cabin, for the summer, in late spring.

We cooked over a camp stove and bathed in our Rubbermaid tub beneath blue skies and the midnight sun, on the side of our hill. We didn’t need a bucket or rope for our well; Victor had that covered, although the knot needed an occasional tug to keep it tight. I imagined this was a difficult task to undertake with so few fingers …

The mosquitoes were delighted with the infusion of new human blood in the neighbourhood; so much so that we quickly assembled our tent in the cabin’s main room and slept tucked safely inside our sleeping bags, behind our tent’s mosquito netting. We played Uno, harvested and cooked down rhubarb, told stories and drove to a nearby town to check email from time to time. Life was quiet, slow and good.

Then one summer evening, as the three of us sat outside singing (was it Amazing Grace?), Victor came around the corner of our cabin and sat down.

My first inclination was to approach him as I would a feral cat; slowly and with caution, or maybe not at all. But almost immediately I noticed, to my astonishment, how presentable he was—his hair carefully combed and clothes wrinkled but clean. I even sensed a slight twinkle in his eye, much like my Grandpa Joe …

Grandpa Joe

My precious grandfather, with that twinkle in his eyes.

My oldest daughter, Jessica, forever the extrovert of the family, has yet to meet a stranger who’s not a friend just waiting to happen. “May I speak with you in Russian language?” she asked, in Russian. We knew Victor was Estonian, but none of us had been able to master the extremely difficult Estonian language. These language barriers—speaking Russian, the language of their oppressors, with Estonians—were frequently awkward.

“Yes, certainly you can,” he replied, And then continued in somewhat broken Russian, “But I’m afraid my Russian language is rusty.” And, suddenly, there it was, most definitely: Grandpa Joe’s twinkle in the eye along with that Estonian smile … so sweet yet so subtle, that a few years back I would have missed it.

Victor spent the better part of that evening with us, chatting and chuckling softly. Jessica and Erin interpreted for Victor and me (my Russian language skills were even worse than his) as we asked and responded to each other’s questions. He seemed amused much of the time; but completely at ease and happy to be with us. I was impressed by his soft gentle manner and acceptance of life.

Victor joined us for evening chats or sometimes just sharing space. At times there were great gaps of silence between us but, oddly, they were never awkward.

I didn’t ask about his missing fingers. I’d already heard the story. He didn’t ask me how an American woman ended up in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia, in a beat up BMW and two daughters. It was a silent understanding.

One evening, as the chill of autumn was clearly moving in, Victor said, “I pick mushrooms and preserve them. I’ll bring you a jar.”

“That’s such a generous offer; but I can’t possibly accept,” I said, meaning it from the bottom of my heart.

I’d watched, from afar, as Victor navigated through his life: struggling through the woods and fields with his old bones; slowly pulling the water bucket up from the deep well with so few fingers; mushroom hunting … I’ve always had reservations about the safety of eating wild mushrooms but I couldn’t imagine any canning process, in the absence of a pressure cooker, let alone running water, that wouldn’t kill me within days (yep, one more of those American sensibilities rearing its head). Most importantly, however, I couldn’t bear the thought of those painstakingly collected mushrooms going to anyone but Old Victor.

“But thank you so much for the offer!” I said.

Victor smiled, very slightly, nodded and walked off towards his home.

The following morning there was a jar of mushrooms on our doorstep. I imagined a twinkle in his eye, as he slipped over, in the early morning hours, and left us his gift.

Summer was nearing its end as we packed up our old car, prayed it would get us back to Riga, and headed south for the winter. I wanted to say goodbye to Old Victor but he’d, once again, disappeared behind the thicket, trees, shrubs and miscellaneous weeds. His home was just like his life: almost invisible, insulated from all things that interrupted his almost imperceptible smile.

Initially I’d hoped that Old Victor would cut back on the vodka and find a companion: a woman? Maybe a dog? Or cat?  Over the summer I decided his life was precisely as he’d designed it and within that life he was happy. I also knew that making my way through the brush to his door, even to say goodbye, would have been intrusive.

I locked up my cabin, but before leaving, I walked down the dirt path to the well. I pulled up a full bucket of water, gave an extra tug to the knot (maybe it would hold all winter?) and left it sitting on the side of the well, for Victor. One last bucketful of water and a tight knot was my goodbye. I knew it would bring one of those imperceptible smiles to his lips.

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Jessica Lifting Water From Our Well … Not An Easy Task, for Victor with His 5 Fingers!

3.

Upon Our Return …

Baltic winters are long and cold; frequently hitting -30 or lower. I looked forward to a spring thaw in April; I continued looking forward in May. When winter finally lost its grip in early June, I packed up my daughters, and car, and we headed north.

At the end of the three and a half hour drive, our old BMW chugged and meandered down the narrow lane towards our cabin. Every icy spot I slipped on was a reminder that, although the winters in Riga were hard, they were even more severe in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia.

As we pulled up to the cabin, I noticed that the pathway to the well looked almost unused.

My heart sank.

Jessica shared my observation: “Huh, I wonder if Old Victor got his own well?” she asked.

“Let’s go back to the post office and ask,” I said, trying to sound casual, as I turned the car around and headed back down the road to the post office.

“Oh he finally died! He froze to death, outside in an ice storm last winter; they say that’s a painless way to go once you get past the first bit…” the woman behind the counter said matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t much of a life he had anyway: waiting for his next pension money, walking here to collect it and buy supplies … particularly vodka. Poor old soul (she flicked her throat with her middle finger and thumb: an Estonian indication of a drunk person). Then he’d go back to that wreck he called a home, all by himself … He had a family once, you know: a daughter, a wife… an actual proper house, he did.” She shook her head in disapproval.

If I’d had the courage I’d have defended Old Victor. I’d have said, “Hey, he was at peace with his simple life; he was actually happy. Did you know that he could collect mushrooms with only five fingers? He could also fill and lift a bucket full of water up a 30 foot well without spilling more than a drop.

“Oh yeah! And he wasn’t totally alone: for at least one summer he was … Old Victor was my friend.” If I’d only had the courage, I’d have done just that …

Instead, I silently got in my car and with my eyes full of tears, and drove back down the dirt lane, remembering Old Victor, as I knew him, with his almost imperceptible smile and twinkle in his eye.

 

 

A Houseless Adventurer Defines Home

The following is a blog I wrote last April, just prior to receiving my UK visa and returning to my Principal Home where I reunited with my Safe Man. At the time I wrote this I decided it was too personal and possibly too rambling to post. After returning to Scotland, relocating to London, spending a month in a rented room—which, while it housed my body, was never my home—and a short Face Book chat with Taylor Keitt about giving ourselves permission to rejoice in our inner life experiences in spite of clearly not meeting societal expectations … I was drawn back to this blog and decided to slightly rework and post it:

A Houseless Adventurer Defines Home

(Written in April 2013)

I‘m blogging on the road, so to speak. Essentially I’ve been on the road for 3 and 1/2 years.

As we made our final departure from our home in Riga our cat, Bianca, promised to wait for our return.

As we made our final departure from our home in Riga our cat, Bianca, promised to wait for our return.

Within my better moments I see myself as an adventurer and explorer of countries and lifestyles; a questioner of the status quo, a non-conforming free spirit … In my occasional pathetic, self-indulgent moments, I perceive myself as someone who’s made some really whacky choices and, although had an incredible life, has currently, landed, face first in the thicket: bruised, battered and homeless

Wait a minute; I’ll be right back. I’d no sooner written the word homeless than I felt compelled to look up the word home.

I’m back … Home: Residence. Birthplace. Place of origin of something. Headquarters. Safe place. These are Microsoft Word definitions. There were others, but I liked Safe Place so I stopped there.

Okay; clearly I have never been homeless; I have actually been blessed with many homes or Safe Places in spite of the fact that I don’t actually have my own house to live in, at the moment.

I’m in Philadelphia, today, with my precious daughter Jessica, after staying with my dear son, Jonathan, and his wife, Emily, for several days; followed by time spent with my wonderful daughter Morgan, her husband Dave and their beautiful, precocious, four-year-old daughter, Ava, all in Virginia.

Ava spent the better part of one afternoon, during my stay, planning how she would celebrate my life after I’d died; this after watching a Lavar Burton video, which I assumed, was created to help kids grieve for loved ones who had already passed on. Ava, however, interpreted it as a toolkit for kids to explore how they’re going to feel when this event occurs. She needed to focus on a specific relative that might be heading in that direction and I was her first choice—she said my proximity (sitting on the bed next to her) and gray hair were the criteria. In spite of my exhaustive effort to point out that her other grandma was my senior by 20 years and still going strong, Ava insisted on mourning my passing: “And I’ll remember how you cooked that oatmeal with berries and nuts in the mornings…” She said, her eyes welling up—neglecting to mention that she actually doesn’t like my oatmeal … I was touched that she chose to share how much she would miss me when my time came although slightly disturbed with the sharing of her vivid imaginings of my demise, including a run down of the guest list for my memorial service—this after some rather disconcerting questions about the alternatives to funerals and burials … But she did seem better mannered and a bit more considerate towards me after her faux-grieving and paying tribute to me …

I spent the better part of 20 years, living and raising my family in Loudoun County, Virginia; so spending time with my children and grandchild in Virginia is always like returning home.

My son Jon and his wife, Emily's home on the mountain.

My son Jon and his wife, Emily’s home on the mountain.

I lived most of my childhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia, so in many ways it feels like I’m home here in Philly, too.

I went to boarding school outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, where my brother, Tim and his wife, Mia, now live; so enjoying a Safe Place with them, for many months over the past 3 years, was like being home on many levels.

I have two major homes in Silver Spring, Maryland and Sleepy Creek West Virginia with my long(est)-term friend, Bette [*note the skillful—although clunky—way I avoided using the term oldest friend].  Bette and I are heading to a Safe Place in Coco Beach, Florida, in a few weeks to spend time in the home of another dear friend, Brenda …

Relaxing by the fire at Sleepy Creek WV.

Relaxing by the fire at Sleepy Creek WV.

Hot-tubbing in Cocoa Beach, at Brenda's; feeling quite at home, I must say...

Hot-tubbing in Cocoa Beach, at Brenda’s; feeling quite at home, I must say…

Last year Brenda and I shared a Safe Place onboard a ship that sailed along the Alaskan border for 2 weeks … What an amazing and blessed adventure that was!

A dining hall on the ship that Brenda and I cruised on.

A dining hall on the ship that Brenda and I cruised on.

For years I lived in a tiny Safe Place in Tartu, Estonia. I still maintain a home in Riga, Latvia—albeit with renters currently living in it. I have yet another home in Stirling, Scotland. This particular Safe Place includes the warm body and smile of my Safe Man, most of my clothes and my bicycle. Quite honestly the Stirling, Scotland Place, with The Safe Man, my clothes and bike, trumps all other homes; I consider this my Principal Safe Place at this moment.

Looking down the stairs in our Safe Place in Riga, Latvia. I can still smell my plants.

Looking down the stairs in our Safe Place in Riga, Latvia. I can still smell my plants.

My Safe Man coming through the garden gate in our Safe Place in Scotland.

My Safe Man coming through the garden gate in our Safe Place in Scotland.

I’ve spent the last 18 years of my life falling in love with places, moving there, settling in, creating a home for myself and remaining there until something or someone disrupted my Safe Place; then I moved on. But there was always one location—one Safe Place, one residence—that I called my home.

This is my family home in upstate Pennsylvania. This has always been both a house and a home to me … It’s where my dear father grew up and where he passed away. It’s hard to think of this as only a structure because of the years of love and history that live within it.

The past 3 years—of splitting my life between the USA and UK—however, have caused me to redefine the meaning of home because I haven’t had one actual place of my own.

My first step, in redefining home—was to differentiate between a house, which is a stationary, material structure, and home, which I’ve decided, is a Safe Place and in my case, needs to be an inner condition.  So, in dire need of a home, I set out to find my inner Safe Place: That inner place of well-being where I could rest, relax and experience joy and peace of mind despite waking up in different beds— frequently not knowing know where I am for several seconds after opening my eyes—as well as living out of other people’s dresser drawers and my suitcase…  I needed to live in a state of joy and gratitude even when my primary connection with my man was hearing his voice through speakers and touching his face on a computer screen …

Whoops! I came dangerously close to a pathetic self-indulgent moment there; did you feel it?

That’s because I constantly struggle with the downright humiliation of not having my own house, in spite of having a home—albeit within myself; because one of the most powerful cultural messages our society has whispered in our ear since the day we were born is: Your personal worth as a human being lies within your having possessions; needless to say a home is pretty much at the top of that list—and our society is most definitely not referring to a warm Safe Place in our soul.

I found the home that lived within me but needed to consciously connect with it while detaching from the importance of having a house; it had to be this way given where my life choices had taken me. I’ve frequently wondered, What was I thinking?  when looking back on my life. But within the process of redefining Home, I clearly saw that I needed to do whatever it took to bring me face to face with this realization: A home simply can’t be a specific building or location because those things are destructible: Places can collapse economically or politically, houses can burn down, or be lost during natural disasters. But the Safe Place that lives within me—where I embrace all of humanity, and all that exists on this planet; that place where I feel joy simply because I’m alive—travels with me and is indestructible.

I have recently been reflecting on an extended camping trip that Egils and I took in 2008, traveling throughout South Eastern Europe.  We happily drove from country to country in our tiny car and made our home in a small tent for over a month, peeking out through our tent flaps and through our car windows into the lives and cultures of others.

We lived in this small tent when not biking or driving, for 5 weeks. It was wonderful, exhilarating, and challenging. Moving back into the other world of  stone walls and glass windows was very difficult.

We lived in this small tent when not biking or driving, for 5 weeks. It was wonderful, exhilarating, and challenging. Moving back into the other world of stone walls and glass windows was very difficult.

As we traveled through the various countries we were amazed at the resilience of humanity; how, when faced with enormous challenges—like the recently war-torn former Yugoslavia or the once economically devastated Romania—people survived, and even flourished… But what surprised me the most was that people appeared to be genuinely celebrating life—in spite of having only their very basic material needs met. It seemed that societies recovering from devastation, have different expectations regarding what their lives should look like, leaving people free to live as best they can without pressure to reach a higher standard. I looked on in amazement at people who seemed genuinely happy to be alive in spite of—by western standards—extremely harsh living conditions. And a part of me felt sad for them, because at that time I believed that having, at least some material wealth was necessary to sustain joy.

A man enjoys a smoke out of his window. When I asked if I could take his picture he belly laughed and shook his head wildly. This was in a war-torn area of Croatia.

A man enjoys a smoke out of his window. When I asked if I could take his picture he belly laughed and shook his head wildly. This was in a war-torn area of Croatia.

People dancing and celebrating in what appeared to be a wedding. We could hear the music and laughter even after we drove away.

People dancing and celebrating in what appeared to be a wedding. We could hear the music and laughter even after we drove away.

My postman friend Avto once said to me: “Life is just a series of habits. If something disrupts those habits our life feels difficult at first. But that’s only because we have to change our habits…  Once you’ve done that you can get back to enjoying life.” This was in response to my incessant complaining about having to heat water for our baths during the 3 summer months that Estonia turned off the hot water supply. Avto’s words turned out to be true. Within a month, we had an accepted routine that allowed us to bathe without a second thought and we quickly returned to enjoying life.

If our quality of life is measured by joy, satisfaction and feeling safe and connected to our world and one another, could it be that those who reside in their inner Safe Place—living simpler, materially minimal lives—might actually be having a better time than those of us who value the house above the home?

Addendum to my April blog

It would be hypocritical of me not to state: I thoroughly intend to have a house again. I am not implying, for one second that a material place to call home has no value to me. But one of my greatest wishes is that I might grasp, on a cellular level, the difference between a house and a home. I wish to bask in the joy of my inner Safe Place as I sip fine wine in my house …

But I have another wish in life—are you reading this one day in the future Ava?—at my memorial service, someday far down the road, I hope someone will say: Holly carried her home inside of her and she left a little of her home—a Safe Place—everywhere she went.

Signing off—with love—from my beautiful new home in London!