Tag Archives: Latvia

Land of the Free

Human beings are prone to rhetoric. We all are, no matter our culture, language, age, or sexual orientation (I just thought I’d throw that last one in there to make my blog hip and current)…

Rhetoric probably makes life feel easier. We can have a few things that we hammer into our psyches, simply by saying them repeatedly, and we don’t really need to think about them. They simply exist unquestionably; kind of like gravity.

One of my all-time favourite rhetorical clichés is, “We’re the best country in the world.” I love this one because virtually every country I’ve ever lived in, or spent appreciable time in, has a version of this one. They also have certain inner stories, based on vague cultural perceptions, which support their beliefs.

America

Americans think they live in the “Best country in the world” because they are powerful in terms of military. They also think they pretty much single-handedly won WWII and Europe is forever beholden to them. They believe that everyone in the world can’t wait to live in America because it’s … well as previously stated: It’s the best country in the world. Americans think the only reason they have enemies is because A. People are jealous of them or B. People are insane terrorists. Americans believe that all other countries either hold American democracy up as their ultimate goal, or they would do so, if their oppressive governments allowed them to. We cannot imagine that our own government possibly set any of these oppressive governments up in power … that would simply be unthinkable of any Christian nation. And first and foremost America believes it is a Christian nation. Land of the free … home of the brave …

England

The English believe they are the Best country in the world because they have, at various times, dominated some part of almost every continent. They have an ancient culture with a powerful history of assisting less developed nations in ways that will help them to be more English (although some would say: assist them in ways to serve England). And of course these nations should have eventually thank England for this assistance in becoming more English because … well, England is the Best country in the world. That nasty word Imperialism is so open to interpretation, isn’t it? The English also have high tea and fox hunts; wonderful words like cheerio (which has nothing to do with breakfast), bonnet and boot (both found on your car, not your body), and cute terms like balls-up and Bob’s your uncle. Google these terms for more information or just for entertainment. These amazing English people have also developed a way of living fairly long, healthy, and productive lives with almost no help from sunshine or vegetables.

Scotland

The Scots believe that they are, by far, the Best country in the world because they fended off the Imperialist English army starting as far back as 596 AD in the Battle of Raith (fought near what is now Kirkcaldy) and successfully beat this superpower back until 1707. Not bad for a bunch of poorly armed, passionate warriors dressed in kilts. The Scots also have gorgeous accents, haggis and, as previously mentioned, men in kilts. I could go on and on about what makes Scotland the best country in the world but I’ll leave it at that; I will add, however, that, the kilts, alone, won my vote.

Latvia

The Latvians believe that they are the Best country in the world because they have survived invasion after invasion but still speak in their mother tongue and miraculously, have kept their heritage— via ancient stories, fairy-tales, legends and songs—intact. Every year Latvians join together in a magnificent song festival and present their oral history to the world— with more than 10, 000 voices braided together—in song. In a country with a population of just over 2 million, this probably proves the Latvian love of country—and pride in history—more than anything else I can write.

Estonia

Ah … And now to Estonia. Estonians actually don’t think they are the Best country in the world; they know they are. Estonians are free thinkers who don’t join groups of any kind. The Mormons as well as the Boy Scouts—and probably Tupperware— have all but given up on the Estonians. The story is, after early missionaries came and converted as many Estonians as they could, and then left, there were mass migrations to the rivers, where the converted Estonians unbaptized themselves. Estonians are courteous and polite (hence pretending to become Christians prior to returning to their pagan ways) and they are impeccably honest, with a work ethic to die for: Thank you, Estonia, for Skype, TransferWise and the Minox camera—although technically Walter Zapp, the inventor of the Minox spy camera, was born in Latvia, but who really cares, right? Then Walter went on and produced his invention in Germany. Big deal; hardly worth mentioning … Walter did, however, patent his subminiature camera in Estonia. So there you go. It’s yet another claim to fame for Estonia.

Here’s the oddest part of all of this, though: Each country thinks that behind closed doors, everyone else has only the highest regard for them and down deep inside everyone wants to be them.

My daughter Jessica dated a young Estonian man while we were living in Latvia. He came for a visit one weekend and met the family. After a lovely visit he shared this with Jessica as though it was hard for him to admit: “Estonians make fun of Latvians all the time; but I actually really like your stepfather.” To which Jessica laughed and casually replied, “Yeah Latvians make fun of Estonians, all the time, too.”

The young man looked at Jessie, in wide-eyed bewilderment and muttered, “Wow, really? Seriously?” He then sat silently dumbfounded for some time.

For several months after this event our family laughed when we discussed this naïve young man’s reaction to having his world-view shifted. He believed his We’re the best country in the world rhetoric so strongly that he couldn’t imagine anyone making fun of his peeps. He was equally sure that the superior Estonians were making fun of others because these non-Estonians actually were inferior. He was surprised to meet a highly educated, friendly, well travelled Latvian among the dim-witted, poorly groomed, unfriendly folks that he was certain inhabited the rest of the country.

It was with a smile and over many years that I came to understand: There is no Best country in the world. It simply doesn’t exist. It can’t objectively exist.

There are different countries and cultures with different histories— all of them rich, wonderful, sad and tragic. None of them deserve to be demeaned or the punch lines to anyone’s jokes. We all have our strong points and we all need to move forward together—especially now—with open hearts, into this new frontier …

When I arrived in Estonia in 1995, I was certain that I was going to love my adventures but that I would probably be called upon to give up some of my freedoms. I didn’t even know that I thought this until I was speaking to my late mother-in-law, Julie, who asked, “Why on earth would anyone want to leave the freest country in the world to move to a Soviet one?” And my liberal, broadminded, well-intentioned reply was, “It’s just the price one pays to travel and have new experiences.” (Insert shudder) It didn’t cross my mind to ask, “What exactly does freedom mean,” or, “What makes America the freest or best country in the world?” America simply was the freest and best country in the world. It was like gravity; it was beyond question.

After several months in Estonia I came to a shocking conclusion: Estonia was actually the freest country in the world. Hands down. Maybe it was even the best …

We were permitted to drink a beer on the streets or while sitting in the park, any time we wanted to do so. We could sunbathe without clothes—by the riverbank that ran through the middle of town, or sitting in our tall windows—shamelessly facing the sun, and the whole neighbourhood. No one batted an eye; no one even noticed. We could smoke cigarettes in restaurants and train stations. We had good national healthcare. Although we were in a university town, there were no curfews or bans on noise after certain hours. Fireworks were legal and—it turned out—smashing Champaign bottles all over the town on New Year’s Eve was perfectly acceptable.

Initially my new life—sans almost all restrictions, rules and regulations—was spectacular. I loved sipping a cold beer in the park on a warm afternoon. I enjoyed an occasional cigarette, when I wanted one, not when I was in a legal or designated area. I loved feeling the hot sun on my entire body, watching myself turn brown as a berry. Everywhere. This was living! This was freedom.

I was extremely uneasy, however, when I walked across the snow covered Town Square on New Years day, 1996, after having spent New Years Eve celebrating there with hundred’s of others, including more than a fair share of students from the university. The snow was splattered with blood in many places and more than one large spot was actually melted by what must have been a puddle of blood. What had seemed, the night before, like an organized smashing of bottles—which I’d assumed was some customary ritual managed and carefully carried out by some responsible folks (yeah, what was I thinking?)—had actually been a chaotic attempt, by a bunch of drunks, to make a lot of noise. And there had been injuries. Some serious injuries.

After careful thought and consideration I decided to avoid gatherings of students because … well … students were notoriously irresponsible.

I still, however, didn’t see this as a societal problem.

Then one beautiful autumn day, as I sat in the park reading a book, a man walked by me. He was drinking from a bottle—which was perfectly legal—and seemed to be weaving a bit. Suddenly he stopped directly next to me and vomited, splashing the park bench, my book, and me.

And that’s when I formulated the question: What exactly is freedom?

Is allowing everyone the right to drink in public places freedom, when some of us can’t relax in the park without fear of being vomited on? I was responsible. I never drank more than one beer and most definitely didn’t puke on people. But that was me; the man in the park lived by different beliefs and standards than I did. He needed restrictions and rules to keep him in line. I needed those rules to keep me safe from his bodily fluids.

Societies need rules, laws and regulations to guide—and protect the majority of us from—the lowest common denominator. That’s how societies have always worked.

When we say: We have the freest country in the world, that’s meaningless rhetoric. And it’s also literally impossible to do. We don’t want a completely free country: A society where anything goes; where people can vomit on you or smash bottles into your head … I’m pretty certain that this was actually never anyone’s goal.

Estonian laws began changing quickly. Within that year, all smoking was banned; even in the parks. Alcohol was not allowed in public places and various other laws restricted behaviour.

I think most of us were glad to watch the changes happen.

Rather than seeing new legislation and policies as restrictive and stealing our freedom, we saw Estonia as growing and expanding. The government was keeping us safe and allowing us to live in harmony. Although I don’t hold Estonia up as the Best country in the world—since no such country exists—they have my respect and admiration for a job very well done.

America is at a crossroads right now—as is the rest of the world—with some of our issues being exclusively ours, while others we share with our planet. We have some major questions to answer: How important is climate change, gun control, women’s rights to govern their own healthcare and bodies, a cohesive national healthcare system, equal pay for equal jobs, ending corporate control of our government and thereby us, ending racism and all discrimination? How do we see our future? Who are we as a nation?

Is being a Christian nation quite possibly just more of our meaningless rhetoric?

Sadly the most prominent Christian belief of many Americans isn’t “Do unto others.” Nor is it, “Helping the least of these, my brethren…” and most definitely it isn’t “Judge not lest ye be judged.” The predominate Christian belief of many seems to be this: The world is coming to an end. So arm up, batten down the hatches and let it all go to hell in a hand basket … oh yeah, and hope that you personally, cut the mustard and wake up on the right side of the pearly gates. Screw everyone who doesn’t buy your brand of religion because … hey … they’re all goners anyway and (and this one saddens me the most) to hell with this sinful planet—our beautiful home with all of its wonder, abundance, promise and bliss has been diminished to a waiting room for someplace that quite possibly exists only in ancient myths and the human mind … but, regardless, to hell with it all.

Question the rhetoric! We have time to turn this train around but not by following the old models. We must question everything and move forward in a new direction.

Let’s do it. Let’s move out of the box and make a pact to become the best plant in the galaxy! Let’s become the land of the responsible and the loving home to all life and humanity regardless of religion, colour or culture.

We can do it. In fact, it’s way more possible than becoming the freest country in the world… And look how long we’ve been trying to nail that one.

Signing off from my little corner of Planet Earth here in UK.

Advertisements

Return Of An Early Inhabitant of Jaunpils Castle (Circa 1301) Or Just A Glitch In The Matrix?

HPIM1644 2

In the autumn of 2004, more than just the leaves were changing in Latvia. We were in the midst of immense cultural, financial and political shifts: We had been members of the EU (European Union) for precisely one year; within which time, change had consumed every level of Latvian life. Politicians now had the EU overlooking their shenanigans and had become somewhat less overt with their corruption.  The economy was—by Eastern European standards—robust and showing remarkable improvements. After some bouncing around, we’d reduced inflation from 958.6% in 1992 to 2.5% by 2004. People were renovating old properties and tourists were flooding the capital city of Riga. Life was finally stable and, as an American, I felt hopeful.

There was, however, a shadow side to all of this good news: With the tremendous  social and economic changes came a collective identity crisis shared by many local people. My dictionary defines Identity Crisis: A period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.

I leave it up to you to imagine what happens when an entire society experiences abrupt unexpected change in their aims and roles. When you compound this with the fact that what Latvian society had been and what it was transitioning into were almost diametrically opposed (regimented socialism/communism to a relatively freewheeling capitalism) … Let’s just say it was disorienting for many people.

The watchful, parental eye of the Soviet Union was in force for 50 years: People were told where they would work and live and had no worries about future security; all necessities were guaranteed. Music and art were defined and dictated by the state; even personal fashions, including the length of men’s hair, were mandated. The sudden collapse of such an austere political system left many people wondering what was normal within this brave new world into which they’d been launched. This lack of a clear identity created some rather inexplicable behavior—in the search for normal—that frequently offended my American sensibilities. More on that later …

2004 was also the year I bought my first digital camera. I was immediately in love with my new acquisition and we quickly became inseparable. The cost of film had been high in Europe, but the cost of developing pictures, particularly in Eastern Europe, had been extremely high and often had a 10-day to 2-week turnaround. Overnight I was able to take hundreds of pictures, download them onto my computer, delete them from the memory card, and start all over again. I was off and running with this new technology.

It was a warm, Saturday morning—with an azure sky as far as the eye could see, interrupted by only a handful of white fleecy clouds—that Egil and I headed to Jaunpils Parrish, about an hour south west of Riga, to visit the beautiful Jaunpils Castle. I knew nothing about this early 14th century castle, but Egil assured me that, although it had been rebuilt and restored many times over the past 7+ centuries, parts of it remained impressive examples of ancient architecture.

Factually, we were both longing to escape the noise and stress of the city, for the day—as much as we loved Riga—to commune with nature and hopefully experience a few Kodak Moments with my new digital companion.

We took our time driving to the castle—Enjoy The Journey as Much as The Destination is generally our motto—meandering through the bucolic Latvian countryside…

The journey was beautiful on that clear October day.

The journey was beautiful on that clear October day.

Consequently, we arrived at our destination in mid afternoon.

The castle gardens and grounds were spectacular. In every direction the scenes were surreal, in a Monet painting sort of way: soft, pastel gardens, grassy fields, meadows and ponds bathed in golden autumn sunlight… and all of this with a medieval castle as a backdrop.

A small pond, alive with wildlife, and illuminated by the soft golden sunlight of autumn ...

A small pond, alive with wildlife, and illuminated by the soft golden sunlight of autumn.

Jaunpils Castle in late afternoon sunlight.

Jaunpils Castle in afternoon sunlight, upon our arrival.

We wandered around silently for over an hour before realizing that we were ready for afternoon tea. As if on cue, a café appeared—stage right—just off the main cobblestoned square.

Just off of the cobblestone courtyard was the small cafe.

Just off of the cobblestone courtyard was the small cafe.

As we left the brightly sunlit courtyard and entered the softly candle lit café we found ourselves almost completely blind.

Standing in the arched doorway our eyes slowly adjusted and the lovely room came into focus: Three tables stood along a back wall—with the table to the far left being occupied; the two other tables awaited us. We moved towards the far right, leaving an empty table between us and the other patrons.

The candlelight danced magically around the room, bouncing off of the stone walls, leaving crevices and crannies hidden in deep shadows. I loved the absence of harsh electrical lighting as well as the lack of blaring techno music—which so many establishments in the former USSR seemed to consider an integral part of their ambience.

I was aware of a man, woman, and child sitting at the table on the far left wall and initially thought they were simply a family out enjoying the beautiful autumn day. Gradually, however, I became aware that the child—a boy of 9 or 10—was extremely agitated about something: Initially whispering—albeit very emphatically— that he wanted to go home. His whispering became louder until he was announcing to his father that, with or without him, he was leaving. The father was replying with soft, distracted responses like, “Oh lighten up, son. We are here to enjoy ourselves.” I wasn’t sure what “We” he was referring to because the boy was obviously not enjoying himself at all.

As my eyes further adjusted to the low light I could see a middle-aged man—let’s call him Clueless —groping a very young woman in a most inappropriate manner. I was thankful for the table that somewhat obscured our view, at least below the waist. The young woman—let’s call her Giggles—was laughing pretentiously, although not the least bit embarrassedly.

At one point Clueless put food in his teeth and then leaned in towards Giggles who obligingly nibbled it out of his grimacing mouth, while he fondled her. I was thankful I hadn’t ordered anything solid to eat, or I’d have possibly lost it.

I understood that without an internal appropriate behavior barometer these were difficult times, but this man had a child acting as his own built in barometer—and he was ignoring him! The scene was appalling on so many levels with the primary one being: The poor child, obviously saner than his hormonally imbalanced father, was feeling completely humiliated by the adults’ (chronologically speaking) behavior. And this fact haunts me to this day: How does a child have more inborn integrity than his parent?

[Okay, so this is a great example of the kind of behavior I was talking about Re. the collective identity crisis creating some really bizarre conduct. As an observer there was almost nothing one could do—in the absence of laws or even standards of acceptable behavior—but watch and cringe. Frequently it seemed like the person performing such acts had seen a movie and thought, “Oh! So that’s normal! Okay I’m good to go here …” and then went out and reenacted some ludicrous Hollywood performance on the street—or in a café, as it were.]

I cleared my throat loudly, several times—thinking perhaps Clueless and Giggles hadn’t realized they had company—in a tone that clearly stated that their fellow diners were not enjoying the show.

If anything our announced presence seemed to encourage the adults (I cringe at the use of this word) and further outrage the boy.

We’d ordered our tea upon entering the establishment—and not being the kind of people to waste money—we decided to drink and run, as the drama across the room unfolded.

“I’m going to turn my flash off and try to capture the beautiful candlelight in this room,” I announced, as I neared the end of my tea. Egil looked at me with his, “Um… Seriously? Alrighty, then…” facial conversation that ended with “I’d rather cut and run immediately, but … yeah okay, just be quick…”  (unlike me, Egil frequently speaks without words.) I can’t imagine what it would take for me to pass up a potentially nice picture; but Clueless and Giggles were not it.

With all patrons seated and the only waiter present hanging out in the backroom (good call in my opinion), I held my camera tightly in both hands; elbows propped firmly on the table, to avoid any movement and began clicking away. The room was absolutely still as I took several pictures, trying with each shot to hold my breath and steady my hands.

In our haste to miss the final act at the table across the room—and reconnect with nature and silence—we quickly left the café after I felt I’d taken an adequate number of pictures. We did not preview any of them.

Giggles and Clueless had so disrupted our peace that we called it a day almost immediately and returned home.

That night, I downloaded the pictures I’d taken throughout the day onto my computer. Initially, when I looked at the pictures I’d taken in the café, I failed to see the ghostly figure that appeared in one of the pictures. What I saw instead were a group of blurry pictures, one of which included a distorted image where light had refracted in some weird way … Then as I looked closer and my eyes focused, I gasped, as a human image materialized in front of my eyes. To me this looked like a woman—perhaps a servant, but not one living entirely in the material plane.

This is one of the several pictures I snapped, in quick succession. You can see the empty room, as we saw it.

This is one of the several pictures I snapped, in quick succession. You can see the empty room, as we saw it.

This photo was taken in the same "empty" room. This image (that looks female to me) is looking directly towards the table of unfolding drama.

This photo was taken in the same “empty” room. This image (that looks female to me) is looking directly towards the table of unfolding drama.

I came to learn that the Ghost of Jaunpils Castle is a well-accepted personality among the employees. When I sent my picture to the management, the response was simple: “Thank you for these photos. They are some of the best photos where [we can easily see] our ghost. This is our Good Ghost, who always takes care of Jaunpils Castle.”  There were no attempts to deny or explain what appeared in my picture; no apologies or excuses seemed necessary. This was a Good Ghost who assisted in taking care of the castle. The end.

This might be a good time to say that I don’t know what I believe ghosts are. A part of me thinks that if time isn’t linear—as some scientists and minds more brilliant than mine, hypothesize—then perhaps all souls are living simultaneously, separated by a thin veil, that is occasionally breached; when this happens perhaps we can see (or photograph) people living in other eras. My mind cannot entirely wrap around that concept but I can feel it. Sort of. The other possibility is that the energetic bodies, of those who have lived before, but not yet moved on, hang out and work with energies in our current time. On occasion, perhaps when they become excited or disturbed, we can see or photograph them. Or perhaps these are angels, or fairies…  Honestly, I have no idea; in fact, I don’t even have a favorite theory.

I just have feelings about these things.

Prior to receiving the email—informing me that I had photographed the Good Ghost—I’d felt in my bones, that the appearance of this ghostly image was somehow related to the drama and emotional state of the child. The image seemed soothing; she was also looking or moving towards the table where the drama was unfolding.

Was she the Good Ghost who considers it her responsibility to take care of the castle? Had she come to lend support and comfort to the young boy at this time of intense anger and humiliation? Or perhaps she materialized (almost entirely) in an attempt to knock Clueless and Giggles into next week: This being my favorite theory although it’s probably projection.

Once again: I have no idea.

For anyone wanting to know more about me (the author) and my journey, here’s a short video:

 

My Quest To Find The Magical, Mystical And Truly Unexplainable

I had a column in City Paper EE, an English language magazine in the Baltic region of Northeastern Europe, a few years back. This particular gig was quite literally my dream job. My editor was a young Australian woman who asked little from me other than once a month handing her a 2,500-word article with pictures. The content requirements were loosely defined: Make it fun, fascinating, and (preferably) grammatically correct, about The Unseen (that’s a link to one of my articles) that lives within the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Any and everything that existed beyond the sense of sight was up for grabs: Ancient as well as urban myths, mystical forests, haunted homes and castles, UFO’s, orbs … This was a job tailor made for me, by the editor, because she’d learned that I was working on a book with the working title The Unseen.

I had several experiences, during the writing of my column, that I never wrote about, but have now decided to share with you: those of you who follow, or just popped into, my blog. There will be four posts of this sort in my blog unless you, the readers, want more; in which case I am thinking about pursuing my interest in these topics, here in UK, and continuing to blog along these lines on occasion.

But for now I am planning my next four blog entries with the following titles—more or less. #1. A Journey Into The Unseen (the one you’re currently reading). #2. DOP Disappearing Object Phenomenon: Valid Or An Excuse For Failing Memories? #3. An Unexpected Image in a Photograph in Jaunpils Castle Built Circa 1301 (obviously that title needs some streamlining, but you get the idea). #4. Be Careful What You Ask For (or an alternate title) An Enchanted Church In The Forest.

Those who know me, know that I am fascinated with The Unseen, perhaps because I love playing detective and the vast majority of paranormal experiences, mysterious photographs and unidentifiable sounds as well as objects are—if you delve deeply enough and keep an open mind—quite explainable within the physical plane. I’m not speaking of intentionally constructed hoaxes; I’m referring to cases where people witnessing these events are baffled and often frightened.

When working on my column I was contacted by my Latvian friend, Dace, who told me of a Russian man—we shall call Igor—living in the countryside, who believed he’d found The Holy Grail hidden deep in a cave in Latvia. Igor was in hiding—communicating only via prepaid mobile phone cards—because he had apparently received some (extremely unwanted) publicity in several Russian yellow newspapers and now, he claimed, Big Money Men, who wanted to know what he knew, were hunting him. At first I was amused that anyone actually believed The Holy Grail was more than part of King Arthur’s myth, that it was an actual object, and that it was still floating around somewhere, waiting to be discovered. After some research, however, I learned this belief was not exclusively Igor’s; in fact many people believe that The Holy Grail is the Arc of The Covenant, or the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, and that it does indeed still exist; even more surprisingly, some believe it is hidden in Latvia.

Igor was moving to a new location every few days in an attempt to hide from his would-be captors and swapping out his phone card even more frequently. To me creating such a challenging lifestyle around his own personal Quest for The Holy Grail was reason enough to meet with him and hear his story. I began laying the groundwork, for an upcoming interview with Igor, in my next article for City Paper, by presenting a loosely woven theory: Perhaps the handful of Knights Templar who were known to have escaped France, slipped into Latvia between 1307-1314 while King Phillip The Fair—a nickname, most certainly referring to his hair and complexion; not his character—systematically annihilated the rest of the knights. The most widely accepted belief is that these few Templar escapees were in possession of the vast Templar treasures, one of which may have been The Holy Grail … and since these treasures have yet to be recoveredIf one were to accept the possibility that, rather than UK or western Europe, the Knights Templar, slipped instead into a backwater territory of northeastern Europe, now known as the Baltic region, and that The Holy Grail was among their treasures, it would not be unreasonable to launch on a quest similar to Igor’s. Not completely unreasonable, I mean …

The same possibilities that sent Igor on his search could also serve as a launching pad for my investigation, or at the very least for an extremely entertaining, semi well documented, article.

Igor changed our meeting place twice on the afternoon prior to the evening we were to meet, demanding each time that I not share the location with anyone other than my interpreter, Dace, who was also taking his calls and whom he’d already met and trusted.  We had no phone number on which to reach him, since he replaced his phone cards several times a day, so we waited patiently by our phones prior to our meeting at a secret location in Riga—which he changed for a third time at the last minute. Just for good measure.

Arriving an hour late, at the designated place, Igor cautiously scans the room before entering. I wonder what he considers suspicious since the most dubious looking person in the place, by a long shot, is him: half-hiding behind a partition, his eyes dart from table to table beneath a furrowed brow; he has a large bundle of papers tucked securely beneath his arm. His appearance makes me sit up and feel something … Fear? Compassion? A good story?

Dace nods, tilting her head towards the door, and then between clenched teeth, with a slight smile—ventriloquist style—she whispers, “That’s him… and he is totally freaking out!” To which I reply, “No shit, he’s freaking out! But do you think he has a legitimate story?” and then on closer inspection I add,  “Or did he—did he derail a few stops back?”

Dace grins impishly and then says something that will become my touchstone during the remainder of my paranormal investigations: “Who knows? Maybe both: he’s derailed and holds an interesting story…. Which means we’ll have to follow him down the rabbit hole and try not to get derailed ourselves.”

In order to investigate and verify, or dismantle, claims that exist concerning The Unseen, the investigator—that would be me as well as you the reader—must be willing to move into unorthodox places, if only in our minds. We must entertain thoughts that frequently defy conventional wisdom; but we must also stay grounded and as objective as possible. Woo-woo lies just inside the rabbit hole and once you enter—which you must—you can quickly become disoriented, leaving you vulnerable to all sorts of craziness—which is fine if all you want is an entertaining story and you can find you’re way back to reality after you’ve gotten it. If, however, one wants to honestly determine whether or not something is unexplainable within current understandings of how the world works, one must remain grounded and objective but with an open mind. It hurts our credibility as an investigator if we detach from reality because A.) It impairs our ability to investigate. And B.) We are not sane according to standards set by the rest of the world and they happen to be our audience; so better not to alienate them.

Whether we have the ability to rejoin reality (as we know it) when we’ve completed the project, is yet another story …

Dace gave Igor a warm smile of acknowledgment and motioned for him to join us at our table when it appeared he had finished his room assessment.

Many beers and several hours later, I was feeling more awkward and with more unanswered questions than when I’d been sober and less informed.

Igor could not tell me what The Holy Grail looked like, because he had not yet retrieved it from its hiding place since, touching it, unless you were completely pure of heart, would mean certain and instant death. He would not tell me where it was, for my own protection. Apparently my purity of heart was not even worth discussing. He told me that several people who had been working with him to find this treasure had now been murdered, although their deaths were made to appear as though they came about from natural causes. I can’t recall the exact scenarios in which the two gentlemen had died but one was made to look like heart disease or something and the other guy was 98 years old. Okay I am improvising here but, after hearing how they died, had I been the coroner I would have called both deaths in question naturally caused.

Igor had years of documentation within his folders and files of papers. He showed me copies he had made from ancient writings, that gave clues to what the Holy Grail was and where it was hidden. He showed me page after page of documentation and data—some of which I understood and some of which was so far over my head that I asked for copies to study. Igor respectfully declined giving me copies of even a shred of his documentation—which, in all fairness was understandable—but not having any access whatsoever to Igor’s documentation brought my ability to investigate to a grinding halt.

Igor’s belief in his documentation was as unfaltering as was his belief that his protégés had been murdered. Challenges to his beliefs fell on deaf ears. He had been working too diligently and way to many years on his research to allow any cynical American journalist to rain on his parade.

And herein lies the trap. If we go into an investigation with a preconceived idea of what we will find, we probably will find exactly what we believe we’ll find—or believe that we have.

The more focused we are, the more the evidence—whether it actually does or not—appears to support our beliefs. If we are also closed to any opinions or even questions of others, our beliefs become more concrete and our findings less scientific and more anecdotal because we know we are right.

This is why double blind scientific studies—whenever possible—are so important. Generally when investigating a paranormal or mystical experience—or in this case finding a hidden treasure—a double blind approach isn’t possible, however.

Initially Igor had my attention with objectively collected and well-researched documentation; it was compelling and believable. But as he moved forward through his years of research, his evidence began relying more and more on dowsing, premonitions, mediums AKA channels  and synchronicities. While I don’t completely discredit any of these things, I also don’t use practices or techniques that live inside the rabbit hole, when attempting to substantiate, mystical, magical or paranormal events, to those believing exclusively in the physical world.

In the end Dace and I agreed that Igor might very well have discovered something of value—both ancient and mystical. But his unorthodox modes of research and inability to share any pertinent data as well as his failure to even see, let alone extricate, this treasure from its hiding place, led us to abandon any further investigation.

To this day, I wonder how Igor is faring. Has he followed in the path of his peers who are now living in the spirit world? Is he still hoping to become “pure of heart” to the extent he needs to be in order to retrieve his treasure? Is he in a padded cell somewhere?

I’m not making light or demeaning Igor or his quest. Not at all. I believe that, at some point, he was probably on his way to discovering something extraordinary. Perhaps he even found it. But I also believe that he didn’t stay grounded enough to bring his treasure back to the real world—perhaps he was even unable to return to reality himself. In the end Igor was a frightened man, unable to explain or share enough of his quest or his findings to give him any credibility. And he was living alone, moving from place to place, discarding telephone cards and leaving people with a lot of questions.

Which brings me to my reason for this first entry into The Unseen: I tried (and continue trying) when researching and sharing my findings with others, to rely on physical evidence when drawing my conclusions and whenever possible I have objective witnesses.

If you are interested in my paranormal experiences I’d love to get a comment below. I’d also like to hear any thoughts you may have concerning Igor. If you think I should have pursued him and his story more aggressively bear these facts in mind: If Igor was correct about the murders, I would be next in line. If Igor was wrong about the murders, he had become paranoid and possibly derailed. Either way, I would have been in for a strange and challenging ride. But I do sometimes wish I’d gone further with him … What are your thoughts?

That’s Me Signing Off~

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

I’ve Been Gone For A While But Wait Until You Hear Why…

Since my last blog I received my UK visa!

Wait.

Even with that exclamation mark this sentence doesn’t begin to reflect the monumental nature of the event: Receiving my UK visa …. And  I will not stoop to a double exclamation mark. I have way too many English Majors in my life, who keep tabs on me, for such faux pas….

Perhaps my blogs should come with a disclaimer; something along the lines of the one on my rearview mirror: Images in print appear much smaller than in my reality!

Okay let’s start over.

In April of this year, I received a UK visa after Egils and I worked towards that end for 3 1/2  long years of our lives.  UK law requires that anyone coming from beyond the European Union borders (that would be me) must have a sponsor (that would be Egils) who can adequately (financially) support him/herself as well as the person being sponsored. The UK government is unaware that people coming from the former Soviet countries (namely: Egils and I) can live on air, so the amount of financial stability that they required was um… ridiculous, by our standards.

Screen goes wavy then white and we fade into a backstory…. I’ve been dabbling in video recently.

It’s July, 2009, I’ve lived in Latvia for almost a decade with my Latvian partner, Egils. Both of us received slashes in our, already pathetic, salaries prior to all paychecks ending, a few months ago. We have gone through most of our savings. Every day one of our friends or associates leaves Latvia. The grocery stores’ supplies are dwindling. My close American friend of more than 40 years, Bette, says gently, during a Skype talk, “You have to leave. You don’t really have a choice. I’ll help you, but you must go. Now.”

I’ve been denying this obvious fact for almost a year. But within this moment, I know she’s right. We must leave.

I apply for a UK visa, based on what’s left of our paltry savings,  123 online job applications that Egils has submitted for jobs in UK, and a heartfelt plea to return to the land of my great-grandparents.

A week later I receive my visa application back with a “WTF Woman! You can’t seriously think we’re going to let you reenter the sacred land that your ancestors  abandoned 100 years ago, based on a few bucks in an Eastern European bank account and some auto-response replies to online job applications!”

The official wording is “Visa Denied” but in retrospect, I totally know what they wanted to say.

We spend less than a month packing our small car, renting our home, and finding keepers for our cats, before fleeing our home in Latvia, in August, and arriving in Scotland one week later.

Egils enters the UK workforce on the bottom rung of the ladder, trying to make enough money to sponsor me. His masters degree, rich work experience,  fluency in multiple languages, and strong work ethic are of almost no value. He has an accent. He’s unfamiliar with local culture and traditions. He’s come here, uninvited, from a poverty stricken country, at a time when local people are scrambling for the few remaining jobs in the midst of their own recession.

He takes any and every job that comes his way: he works with disabled people, hangs banners over kiosks, scrapes old signage off walls and applies new, drives people to and from the airports…. I help when I can but have no legal rights to work without a visa.

Our time together, in Scotland, is spent in a rented room with the Syme family in a small village in Stirlingshire—the gateway to The Highlands. The Symes become our Scottish family. On good days they are our safety net; on bad days, our guardian angels.

In spite of the Syme family’s boundless hospitality and our endless efforts to make money, I am forced to leave UK 6 months after we arrive because I am an American without a UK visa.

This  6-months-in-UK-6-months-in-USA  requirement continues for 3 1/2 years. Ultimately Egils and I live separately for more than 2  of those 3 1/2 years—him working odd jobs and looking for full-time employment in UK, while I live in the USA with my dear friend Bette ( yes, we are still best friends!) and her husband, Mike.

This gave me more than 2 years of time in the USA to visit with my adult children: Morgan, Debra, Jonathan and Jessica, as well as my grand-babies. I had months  with my brother Tim, his wife and my dear friend, Mia, and their clan—more time than we’ve ever shared in our adult incarnation; what a blessing! I had time with my dear sisters Jeannine and Heather and their clans. I traveled from Coudersport, PA—where I spent time time with my physically and mentally declining mother and her amazing, young-at-heart, sisters—to Cocoa Beach, Florida where I reunited with my dear friend and boarding school roommate, Brenda (and her man, Bert). Brenda and I also cruised to Alaska, walked the ship’s deck in the (nearly) midnight sun and witnessed the birth of an otter on an iceberg.

Many aspects of these past 3 years were miraculous— rewarding in so many ways and on so many levels of my being…. But they were also years of separation from my beloved partner; they were years of incredible insecurity; they were times of learning the true meaning of faith. They were times that taught us the essence of what it means to be an immigrant: A person with many homes, while lacking a real home. They were times that challenged me—challenged us—to the core.

I have many  other visas and each picture tells a story: I’m over-the-moon to be going to Russia and experience a country I never thought I’d see, in early 1993…. I’m trying to smile, as I have finally succeeded in getting an Estonian visa, but my eyes are bloodshot. It is the week my father died … I have a lopsided smile in my next Estonian visa. I came straight from the dentist’s office with a numb, paralyzed jaw (but the appointment with the photographer had been hard to get)… I’m smiling like I have a secret in my first Latvian Visa. I am in those first days of new love with my partner….

My UK visa picture is quite different from any of the others. I am looking pleadingly, at the camera. I look exhausted and like I’ve been crying for years… I’ve been through heart failure. I’ve been away from my man for… it feels like forever. I’ve been living on the edge for way too long….

There were good times in these past 3 1/2 years. In fact there were great times that I wouldn’t exchange for anything. But there were some godawful, I-can’t-believe-I-lived-through-them times as well.

But now they live only as memories.

Because…

I got my UK visa!!

Now let me address the above statement: I’ve been dabbling in video recently…

After 1 & 1/2 years of working on a video, I’ve now completed it and posted it on YouTube! I am pleased and honored to share this with you.

In Search of Home: A photographic essay of our journey from Eastern Europe to Scotland. I really hope you’ll enjoy it and pass it along to others.

http://youtu.be/Ov8nyg8g8CY

I have also pretty much set up my online store where, should anyone desire to own prints of—or products containing—some of my best photos, just click below and voilà!

http://www.cafepress.com/BonnyScotland

So that’s what I’ve been up to since January and my last post (shame on me!). I hope to be blogging more regularly now that I have ended my regular commute between USA and UK.

For now, I’m nestled back in my wee village in the foothills (or hellfits as it sounds when the Scots refer to them) of the Ochils.

I will end this blog with a few pictures I took this week on the moor. Sheriffmuir, to be exact.

Gorse on the side of a hill

The gorse is blooming; the heather is next!

Cemetery

An amazingly colorful cemetery as I entered the road up to the moor …

Ewe and Lamb

Once on the moor, the ewes and lambs welcomed me!

Sheep scratching

Snow capped mountains, blue skies, sheep scratching their necks. Life is good on the moors

The Insanely Fluid Ramblings Of An Optimistic… no wait, Pessimistic… no wait, Optimistic Storyteller

After breaking with my pattern and writing the emotionally difficult blog about my mother, in May, I had a revelation: Prior to that post I had been blogging about experiences and events in my distant past; it was easier, less painful, less personal. It was also less authentic because it didn’t include the raw uncensored aspects of my journey. It’s not that I intentionally bend the facts, later; it’s just that during the time that lapses, between the experiences and when I relate them, I have ample opportunity to soften the edges of the memories—or sharpen them, given my sporadic vacillation between drama and comedy—because first and foremost: I am a storyteller. So regardless of the chosen direction—waxing philosophical or breaking cynical—the recollection of events experienced months or years prior to my telling, are not raw and real. They are tainted and reconstructed with humor, irony and goodwill; whatever makes them easier to live with. But I fear that ultimately these stories become like “easy-listening” radio as opposed to full-on Leonard Cohen… Okay, I’ll never be Leonard Cohen… But hopefully you get my drift.

From here on out I resolve to be more honest—by being more current—when blogging.

Here and now I want to relate a not-too-distant-past event that I survived, but chose not to blog, because it was and is still painful. I realized a few weeks ago that I’d avoided almost all mention of this enormous, life-changing event—even on Facebook.

A short backstory for anyone just entering this blog:

I’ve lived abroad for the better part of 17 years, during which time I raised two amazing daughters and chose a lovely partner, Egil, to share my journey with. Three years ago, after the girls left home, Egil and I relocated from Latvia to Scotland. The reason for relocation was the collapse of the Latvian economy. The reason we chose Scotland was our love for the country.

Reinventing our life has been maximally challenging for many reasons—being people of a certain age is one; conducting a job search in the midst of a terrible recession, as immigrants, is another… The list goes on from there.

Americans are not permitted to live in Scotland for more than 6 months at a time without a visa or living permit. I couldn’t acquire a visa /living permit until Egil—my sponsor—was able to generate enough income, on a regular basis, to support me. Being a European National, he had the right to live and work here in Scotland; finding work was another matter altogether.

So every 6 months I traveled back to the US for 6 months, while Egil worked diligently on finding a niche here in Scotland.

I am now approaching the aforementioned event.

I returned to the US for 6 months in May, 2011. About a week into my visit I contracted an upper-respiratory infection extraordinaire. I was ill for almost 2 weeks. Being one of the 50 million uninsured Americans—and certain I would recover with enough vitamin C, chamomile tea and rest—I did not see a doctor.

Shortly after recovering from this flu I went on a cruise to Alaska; this had been a high priority on my bucket list and was a gift from my cherished friend, and former boarding-school roommate, Brenda. I had said, repeatedly since the early 1970’s, that I would cruise to Alaska before I died. When vowing this, I had no idea how these two events—an Alaskan cruise and my death—would almost simultaneously occur.

In early June, floating off the Alaskan coast, I had an anxiety attack; or so I believed. By the end of July I was having these attacks regularly but believed they were asthma. By the end of October, instead of packing my bags to return to Scotland, I was so ill I could not raise my arms above my head without losing my breath. My feet were swollen and I was coughing up blood…

On October 29th, one day after my 60th birthday, I was hospitalized—insured or not. To my horror I learned, very quickly, that I was in congestive heart failure.

It turns out that almost any flu, if it feels so inclined, can attack any organ of our body after it completes its initial mission. In my case, the bug that attacked my upper respiratory system in May continued its onslaught, well into June, only now it targeted my heart.

I will interject my non-scientific personal beliefs here: My heart was deeply saddened as I watched the sudden and terrible decline of Latvia and was further burdened when Scotland ejected me every 6 months; it was broken a bit more with each prolonged separation from Egil. My heart was weak and vulnerable—an easy target—by May 2011. That flu saw me coming a mile away.

For five and a half months I struggled to move from room to room in my friend, Bette’s, house. For the last two of those months I struggled to breathe even while sitting in a chair. Bedtime was a nightmare; I awakened every hour or so bolting upright, gasping for breath. My dreams were of suffocating and being strangled…

I need to write about this event to get it outside of me… I need to relate how dark and murky that place is—that place that we go when our heart is broken and malfunctioning and we have no medical insurance and no idea where to turn for help. That place where I went. I felt completely helpless and frightened out of my mind for months, with nowhere to turn. I wish I could break philosophical here and tell you that I learned a huge amount and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to_______. You fill in the blank space with your choice of great learning experiences that you’re pretty sure you would have had. Make up all sorts of reasons why this was a gift from the Universe. Go ahead. I dare you… Because the way I see it is this: I got ripped off of more than 5 months of my life (time that I now recall as one muddy, ugly snapshot flowing into the next) followed by another 8 months of recovery time. Factually, I do believe in a divine plan and that all is well. Somewhere. But here, in my little corner of planet earth, I lost months of my life to illness and more months of time with my partner: Time I will never get back. Then there were the thousands of dollars of medical bills racked up—after trying with all my might to avoid getting help—because my country doesn’t believe its people have the right to healthcare.

I am so pissed-off…

Wait a minute… As I wrote that last sentence I realized how ungrateful I sound.

Okay, let me clarify: I know I’m fortunate to be alive. Of course, I’m blessed to have received the help I needed—albeit in the nick of time because of the lack of healthcare thing… I’m incredibly fortunate that I was born in an era when the medications necessary to save my life were available… I am blessed with good friends and family who hosted me for months while I was immobile and later while recovering…  I know all of that! But that’s not the point; is it?

Wait a minute I need to sort through my feelings in order to stay real.

Okay, I’m back…

Something just hit me: I’ll bet you that if blog about this event in the future, I’ll be disgustingly upbeat about it. At least I’ll have turned it into a black comedy of sorts—smoothing down the edges and fine-tuning the humor… I will have philosophized this event up one side and down the other until it’s hardly recognizable… I’m slipping into it—that saccharinely sweet Pollyanna place—already…

That’s me. That’s how I roll. Damn it all!

It’s not that I’m actually disingenuous. I’m just an incurable optimist—probably bordering on being a romantic—who needs to put every memory into a tidy happy, aesthetically pleasing box, prior to filing it away; that way, when reflecting back on my life, I smile if not laugh.

Now to the present:

Welcome to Scotland!

I always get a lump in my throat when approaching Scotland and seeing this “Welcome” sign. But this trip was even more emotional.

I returned home a little over two weeks ago. I’m now back in Stirling, Scotland with the Symes (my Scottish family) and Egil. As I write this blog, Egil is on the phone, interpreting and working with other immigrants who also fled dire economics. Yes, he found his niche and we’re heading towards a normal life again…

And oddly, as frustrated and angry as I was when I began this blog earlier today, at some point I began remembering other aspects of this horrible, amazing, eventful, year: Because of my illness I was in the states when my mother fell and broke her hip—a story that ended with her in a nursing home. I was able to visit her as she made that transition and I was there to support my sibs at this most difficult and important time. I spent months with my dear brother, Tim, and his wife, Mia, (my sister of choice not birth) and their children and their children’s children—more time than I’ve had with that branch of my family in… well, actually more time than I’ve ever had with them. I was there when my namesake, Holly, gave birth to her beautiful baby, Trey, and I watched him become a toddler. I had time with my sister, Jeannine, who battled breast cancer for the better part of this year and had the privilege of seeing her beautiful baldhead defiantly sprout brand new, soft curly hair, declaring her victorious over the disease. I spent time with my devoted sister, Heather, who walked herself into blisters this year, to raise money for breast cancer research and hovered over Jeannine and me like a mother hen, at every opportunity. I enjoyed time with my children and my beautiful blessed grandchildren. I was present for my daughter Jessica’s graduation from University and proudly cried through the entire day. I had months of quality time with my old and dear friend Bette, who never once commented that my 6-month visit had turned into 15. And Bette and I reconnected with Donna, another friend from childhood… I experienced an earthquake, survived a derecho and had the opportunity to say goodbye to a beloved uncle. I turned one of my children’s books into a musical with the great jazz artist, Heidi Martin. I practiced yoga with my precious friend Mary Lou, who became a certified yoga instructor during this most auspicious and terrible year. I spent time with two of my wise and beautiful, aging aunts…

Damn it, I’m glad I wrote about how pissed off I was with my ill health, and the US lack of healthcare, before I began reflecting on all of the wondrous and beautiful happenings of the past year and a half…

I feel the sharp edges of my memories wearing away as I write, replaced with gratitude that I’m alive, I’m loved, and I have so many beautiful people in my life to love.

My man in the heather

Egil coming out of the heather after a photo op.

I’m sliding into a smile… because I really am incredibly thankful to be alive and writing. I am also supremely grateful for my partner, who waits patiently for me no matter where I go or how long I stay…

Loch Leven

Loch Leven… What can I say? One of the many beautiful lochs in Scotland that welcomed me back.

How can I hold a grudge against my life with all of its perfect imperfections when the bottom line is: I am alive, living in Scotland and loving it, with all of its midges, mountains, rain and lochs? The fact is: I see unicorns and rainbows in my rearview mirror. I can’t help myself. But I will blog about current events and experiences more often—if for no other reason than to travel through the raw painful honesty of it all.

And that’s me, tucked safely back in the arms of my life here and signing off for now~

On good days my mother sits in her wheelchair…

 

I am in the USA right now, recovering from some health issues and visiting with friends and loved ones, one of whom is my mom who is now in a nursing home.

On good days my mother sits in her wheelchair—on bad days she lies in her bed—staring out her window at a hillside where she remembers playing with childhood friends. My aunt says this is a false memory; she never played on that hill. Mom has a lot of false memories; this isn’t new. She created a world that met her needs. She was the center of her endlessly theatrical universe; it was clearly an alternate reality—generally high-drama—that separated her from others. I had hoped for something more from her as the years marched by. As a teenager I hoped that Mom would snap out of it and join reality so that we could connect and truly communicate.

Ours has always been a complicated relationship; I found it difficult to relate to someone living in a different world than mine. In many ways her endless theatrics frightened me; to this day I hate to be afraid or see others frightened. It’s a painful reminder…

Last week, after my brother and I explained to our mother that she was financially broke, she suddenly inherited millions of dollars—in her dramatic alternate world. She’s now planning to build a hospital for people with arthritis. Mom always admired altruism and so she created a persona of selflessness many years ago… someone to be admired and adored. Even now she’s planning to use her imaginary money to help others and be adored. My sibs and I will be in management positions. She doesn’t want to spoil us by handing us any of her millions. We need to understand the importance of a strong work ethic in spite of the fact that we have all worked hard and are now of retirement age or close to it.

When we ask questions about her newly acquired fortune she wonders why we don’t know all of the details; haven’t we read about her huge windfall? Certainly it must be in all the papers!

Mom would be as hard-pressed to tell you what her children did throughout their lifetimes, as to tell you where her millions came from. She was never involved enough in our lives to know what we were doing. She was much too busy caring for those in terrible crisis and worrying about the less fortunates. Obsessively. In all fairness I must say that my mother helped thousands of people—men, women and children. Now at the end of her life she worries and obsesses about her children and their salvation. She knows her place in heaven is secure; not only has she worried as much as anyone on the planet (an absolute prerequisite to gaining entrance to her heaven) but her good works alone should afford her passes for at least a hundred guests to escort her through the pearly gates. I tell her not to worry about us: You will not live in heaven without your children, I say. It’s a safe statement. If there is a heaven, we’ll be there; if not, well… she’ll be none the wiser.

Mom once told me that one of the reasons she married my father, at eighteen years old, was because he promised her they would travel the world. Being from a poor family she couldn’t imagine seeing the world on her own. She felt eternally blessed to meet a man who shared her travel priorities. Once their children started coming and bills piling up, however, my parents’ travel was put on a back burner. Her life was much like mine would one day be.

And so my mother created a fantasy world to live within—or maybe she lived within her imagination from the day she was born; I’ll never know. I do know that, within my lifetime, she lived in a reality that differed greatly from the one my sibs and I lived in. Her memories of her life experiences—even incidents that we experienced together—had little resemblance to our reality. Our childhood home—driven by the whims of a mother whose extraordinary mood swings within an alternate universe dictated her behavior—was a confusing, frightening environment, lacking any emotional security.

Mom remembers me as a perfectly well behaved child, silent and cooperative—this is quite possibly because I spent my early childhood hiding from her—avoiding her unpredictability at all cost. Then again, it might be a false memory; it’s impossible to say.

My sibs and I grew and matured, spent time in therapy and developed a wicked sense of humor. It was how we survived. As an adult I hoped and prayed for a healing for my mother. Instead she remained consistently herself—stuck in her own ever-increasingly dramatic reality, without any desire to join the rest of us, dreaming her dreams and living within them. And I remained frustrated, waiting for a magical age, revelation, or miracle that would bring us to a common ground.

In 1997 my mother lived one of her greatest dreams: She experienced her first real travel when she and my father visited my daughters and me in Estonia. In the middle of their visit Mom requested that she and I take a trip down to Latvia (where Soviet mentality and culture were much more obvious than in Estonia) without my dad and stay somewhere that would truly reflect the Soviet culture—not a Holiday Inn. I agreed but with reservations: This translated to two full days of Mom Time with nowhere to hide.

We took a night train down to Riga, the capitol city of Latvia, and checked into an inexpensive, dimly lit, damp, Soviet hotel called Sport Viesnīca (or perhaps Monika Viesnīca; I knew of several cheap digs that were almost identical to one another that most definitely reflected Soviet culture). Neither the rampant cockroaches nor the rusty bathtub that drained onto the cracked ceramic tiled floor—then down a central drain in the middle of the room—dampened my mother’s spirit. She said they were interesting, even exotic because they were part of an experience she’d awaited all of her life. Some might think she had a low expectation of life. But I believe that she just wanted the rush of being somewhere completely different from where she normally lived… in her head. The roaches, rusty tub and newspaper-instead-of-toilet-paper reality shook her world, demanding that she live in the moment. She was there in that Soviet hotel— not writing a story, altering her reality, or living within her imagination—she was completely present in every single one of those dark, mildewed, moments as they ticked by—smiling the smile of a young girl falling in love for the first time.

Several hours into touring the city, on the day we were to return to Estonia, a policeman grabbed my arm and yelled at me in Latvian language, of which I spoke almost none. My attempt to speak Russian with him gave my English language away and he shouted back at me in perfect English, “You must leave immediately! There is a bomb in this building,” as he pointed upward at a building looming above us. In my preoccupation with showing my mother the city, I’d failed to notice the bomb squad and others converging on the building.

Mom’s seventy-two year old legs were limited and her stamina had long been reduced to less than a child’s. “It’s okay Mom,” I said calmly, as I took her arm and ushered her quickly away from the crowd of firefighters and policemen. “We’ll be fine. I’m not at all frightened so don’t you be afraid. We just need to get down the street quickly.” What I wanted more than anything was to spare my mother fear. I reasoned that if we died we would hopefully go quickly and if not… well… this would be a life experience. The one thing I couldn’t bear was to see my elderly mother frightened.

As we walked away from the building she looked at me and smiled elatedly, “Oh, I’m not at all frightened. I was just thinking what a monumental event this is. I’m here in the former Soviet Union. There’s a bomb in that building. This is real and I’m here; it’s all so exciting!”

I held her hand as we walked quickly down the street towards safety. If I’d been alone I probably would have taken a few pictures before retreating. I truly believe if she’d approached this building without me she might have stuck around, just to see a real live explosion in a former Soviet city… We were sharing a bizarre reality with some skewed emotional responses but I understood her in that moment—although I knew many people would not have—and I loved her with all my heart.

Last weekend my brother and I went to visit our mother in the nursing home. We said goodbye and walked out to the lobby to leave, when I realized that I’d left my car keys on her bed. I walked back to her room and entered it. She was sitting in her wheel chair looking up at the hill, her back to me.

“I forgot my keys, Mom,” I said, as I entered, not wanting to frighten her.

She didn’t turn around but kept her gaze out the window.

“There’s a big black bear waddling up that hill,” she said, pointing her crooked pointer finger at the hill. My mom’s finger is crooked because it was caught in a coffee grinder or a flourmill or the wringer in her mother’s clothes washer or stepped on by a bully in boots… her story, about how her finger became crooked, changes; the bent finger does not.

“Yes, of course there’s a bear,” I replied, as I turned to leave. Then on second thought I turned back to kiss her head one more time. As I bent down to kiss her I glanced out the window, there was indeed a black bear lumbering up the hill.

“Mom, there really is a bear, there,” I whispered, in amazement.

She looked up at me and smiled. Maybe she was relieved that I saw it, too. I don’t know. I put my hand on her shoulder and we watched silently as the bear made his way to the top of the hill.

“I used to play on that hill when I was a girl,” she said, as the bear vanished into the woods.

“Of course you did,” I said. And I thought: There could be much worse alternate universes to live in. She could be frightened; she could be seeing spiders or demons…

But she’s not; she spared us that. She’s enjoying memories of playing on hills and inheriting millions of dollars.

A big fat Hollywood ending isn’t going to happen… there will be no magical age, revelations or snapping out of it for my mom. But there might be closure for me… Mom and I have been blessed with occasional moments of overlapping realities in which I’ve seen an essence of her and realized ways that the apple actually fell quite near the tree. And then there was that one extended overlapping reality in Riga… in 1997. And, oddly enough, today, I’m thinking these simple blessings might be enough for a quiet, low drama closing to our story.

 

I’m an American, Damn it

 

In 1993 I was widowed with two young daughters. Broken and bereaved, I dreamed of rebuilding a simpler, less cluttered life. After months of debating possibilities, I decided that the newly independent country of Estonia was a perfect location to construct this new life. Some said I was overreacting and should continue living in my rural Virginia community. I chose a different path: Within 2 years I packed up all of our earthly necessities and, with my daughters, moved to this tiny Northeastern European country. It never crossed my mind that my goal wasn’t achievable. I believed that anything was possible; so it was.

By 1996 I had bought a small flat and was settled into my new life.

As I walked through an outdoor market in Tartu, Estonia, in 1998, a Russian man yelled: “Hey, American, say us about Clinton and Lewinsky!”

“There’s nothing to say,” I replied. “You read the news and know as much as I do.”

“No, no; say why Americans think this story so big interesting?”

Before I could reply, his friend answered him in Russian, “Because they’re Americans,” as a small crowd nearby laughed.

Typically, Americans are thought to be judgmental and have puritanical attitudes towards sex. But, I walked away with my head held high, that day, because I knew something he didn’t know: I was not a typical American!

Three years into my Estonian adventure, tightened immigration policies dictated that I apply for official residency. Because there was no I love the simple life I’ve created here box to tick on the form for requesting a living permit, I couldn’t even begin the process of applying. I was quickly asked to leave the country.

Wait one damned minute, here… Hasn’t this government been encouraging foreigners to buy property for years? And now, are they just expecting me to walk away from my friends, my life and my property?

I knew I’d emerge victorious, as I entered my battle with the immigration department, stubbornly fighting against what I saw as injustice. More than one time I heard a supervisor say, “She is American!” in reply to a head scratching subordinate asking questions like: “Why does she keep coming back acting like we’ll change our policies?” and “What exactly is she doing in our country, anyway?”

In this context, she’s American meant she’s a warrior and doesn’t surrender easily. It also meant, she has reasons for her choices and behavior that are not necessarily logical. I wasn’t about to explain that my crusade for fairness had nothing to do with being American (certainly not with my pathetic Estonian language skills, since Europeans endlessly ridicule Americans for not mastering foreign languages!). So I allowed the bureaucrats their beliefs, that I was a typical American, as I continued challenging their system.

A few weeks into my battle, a well-known local magazine published an article about my daughters and me, asking pointed questions like: How can Estonia evict a poor widow and her children? And Are these what we call enemies of our state? This was the magic bullet I’d been waiting for, instantly piercing and rewriting the immigration department’s ironclad policies. I was later told—although I never received official confirmation on this—that the country of Estonia adopted a new criterion for immigration based solely on my needs: Anyone owning property in Estonia has the right to request residency thus providing a box for me to tick on my application for a living permit.

I lived quietly in Estonia for several more years after receiving my residency permit—traveling, writing, home-schooling and teaching English as a second language—before moving to Latvia in 2001.

One day while browsing a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, I found a series of books, describing—in sweeping stereotypes—different cultures. I laughed out loud as I read What Is An Italian? Oh those Italians… God bless ‘em. They’re just so Italian… And on to the French… how can you not laugh at, and love, the French?

Then I saw it: What Is An American? The thought of reading about those Americans had me laughing before I opened the book.

Number 1: All Americans think they’ll die of cancer and worry about it constantly.

Wait a minute; I stopped in mid-chuckle. That wasn’t actually funny… I thought of how many things I ate, didn’t eat, supplemented with, and didn’t smoke, in hopes that I’d beat the big C.

Okay, so maybe I had something in common with those Americans.

Number 2: All Americans tell you that they are not typical Americans.

My late mother-in-law once said to me, “I just can’t stand people who speak with accents. I have worked very hard to speak proper English with no accent.” This was said in a refined New York accent. When I attempted to tell her that, to a Midwesterner—or even to me, for that matter—she had a significant accent, she impatiently replied, “That’s simply not true. You, however, do have quite an accent and you might work on that!” I loved my mother-in-law, but I despised her horribly limited worldview—so restricted that she couldn’t see that she was exactly like the people she couldn’t stand.

So there I stood in a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, reading: All Americans tell you that they are not typical Americans, in my decidedly American accent, thinking: Oh shit!

Another widely accepted fact: Americans have coarse vocabularies.

That day—standing in the bookstore—the shutters surrounding my worldview slammed open. And I began the process of embracing my inner-American.

During our time in Estonia and Latvia, we washed our clothes by hand, shopped in open-air markets and lived in some extremely tight quarters. For many years we didn’t own a car; we used public transportation and bicycles. Our minimal wardrobes fit in four drawers and one closet. But through it all we had affordable, if not free, medical care and my daughters had free dental care until they reached 18.

The good times in Estonia and Latvia looked a lot like hard times in America. We struggled financially just to live very simply. Without a high expectation imposed by society, however, there was no stigma on living simply and small, making our modest life manageable, sustainable and joyful—until the time that it ceased to be any of the aforementioned.

It was 2008 when Latvia collapsed economically. The political system, always dodgy, quickly followed the economy down the tubes. Americans can’t imagine the depths of depression reached by New Europe during those hard times.

In the midst of this societal implosion, my Latvian partner, Egils, and I packed up our tiny car and fled to the west, landing in Scotland. Both daughters had relocated—one to begin a family in England and one to attend university in the USA. Egils and I moved in with friends, Jim and Thilda, who opened their home to us until we found work. Although we loved Scotland and our dear friends, being without work, money, or our own home—while looking into the face of our golden years—was an abysmal prospect.

So here I am, living in Scotland, adjusting, learning, and reflecting…

The UK has an interesting relationship with America. They find us fascinating—frequently in a WTF-are-they-thinking kind of way—a bit like parents viewing their teenagers.

Our household is watching BBC news. President Obama is discussing his ideas for building a new healthcare system to replace the broken one… cut to the next frame: A group is protesting in the street against Obamacare. I’m not paying much attention until Thilda turns to me, her mouth slightly open, and says: “Holly, they make it sound like some Americans dinna want free healthcare.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I reply.

“No, I mean, like they don’t want to have a national healthcare system … like they’re not entitled to be healthy …”

“Yes, that’s correct. Some Americans don’t want that,” I say. Then realizing Thilda is having trouble wrapping around the fact that there are people on this planet who believe children are entitled to an education but not healthcare, I continue, “Those very people, who are protesting national healthcare, point to you guys and the way you gripe about the NHS [National Health Service], as a reason not to have national healthcare.”

Thilda’s mouth opens wider, “Surely you’re joking! We want to improve our system, no doubt, just like we want to improve everything. But no one wants to do away with our healthcare, altogether! That would be insane…”

Thilda turns to her husband: “Jim are you hearing this? Do you ken there are some folks who dinna want national healthcare?”

Jim doesn’t look up from his paper. “They’re Americans,” he mutters.

I know what Jim means: Americans are impossible to understand. They are illogical and stubborn as mules. There is no explaining why they vote against their best interest and create horrible messes while declaring they have the best country in the world; of course, in America everything is declared. Loudly. Life is one big fat overreaction…

At least I think that’s what Jim means…

I stop trying to explain Americans, as I feel myself sliding down that slippery slope that begins with explaining, before plummeting into a defense. Why should I defend American insanity? What the hell is wrong with them, anyway? Those stubborn, emotional, opinionated, incapable-of-managing-their-own-lives poor excuses for… I seethe at the images of these Americans on the BBC.

Suddenly I’m aware that I’m sitting in someone else’s living room, because the country I chose to live in for the past 14 years just collapsed; a fact that came as no surprise to most folks, but blindsided me. Some might say that I was incapable of managing my life… Hm … I’m also aware that my stubborn, emotional, opinionated thoughts about Americans, a moment ago, were delivered in an American accent. Shit!

“Is there any hope that this can be solved?” Thilda’s voice interrupts my thoughts.

“Of course,” I say, unsure if I’m referring to my shattered life, my relationship with my motherland or the broken American healthcare system. Or all three.

“There’s really hope?” Thilda sounds skeptical.

“Yes!” I say and, oddly, I mean it.

Because as an outsider looking in I’ve learned a few things about myself from observing my country:

Americans are crusaders, believing in an abundant, safe, clean, country that will be proudly handed down to their grandchildren, although they seldom agree on how to achieve their goals. Americans are emotional, opinionated and extreme, with a stubborn refusal to compromise. This keeps us moving forward; it also plagues us with endless conflict along the way. But, our common denominator is, Americans believe we can forever survive—to dream new dreams and make them come true—and so, somehow, we do.

We believe in alleviating the suffering of others; by now it’s probably a marker in our DNA. The Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore DNA Sequence… And so we will.

Americans are… um… just so American: Frequently crude and loud, forever opinionated, illogical and stubborn. But we are also mighty warriors, capable of creating great change and endlessly reinventing ourselves, particularly when we stop fighting with one another. We are the youngsters of the Old World cultures—high-energy, impetuous children—bumbling, stumbling, as we barge head long into virgin territory, unwilling to take advice from our elders… It’s what makes us innovators and leaders. With youthful exuberance we believe in ourselves—for better or worse. So when we fall we hop up. After behaving badly, we reconsider, undo and reinvent—forever rushing into the unknown with a passion that often destroys us and recreates us simultaneously. We do not believe we can be broken beyond repair; and so we can’t.

I sit here in Scotland watching Americans fighting against national healthcare, with 50 million uninsured Americans and an abysmal economy. They’re broken and battered, in need of a reinvention on many levels—just as I am. But as hopeless as we seem, I know, in my bones, that we will somehow survive these hard times and live to fulfill new dreams and fight another day, because we’re Americans, damn it. We believe in our power to find solutions, rise above challenges and flourish; so—in spite of who we are and because of who we are— we always do!