Friday, December 31, 2004

True Notebooks - by Mark Salzman

A book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 352 pages
* Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition, 2003
* ISBN: 0375413081
* $24.00

My daughter, soon graduating with honors with a degree in social work and planning a career working with at-risk youth and juvenile offenders, is currently completing an internship in the probate courts. Her work, to boil it down to its essence, is to champion the young people society has forgotten. She stands up in the courtroom as they are about to be tried and sentenced, offering an articulate perspective on the background of these young lives so few seem to care about any longer. Certainly, a great many of these youth are without champions among their own family members, even fewer champions in society in general.

When I picked up Salzman's "True Notebooks," I expected it would give me more insight into the world my daughter is now entering. I, too, have spent some time visiting various at-risk youth homes and juvenile centers and prisons. I found the deeper insights I was looking for. I recognized my own mirrored insights in Salzman's experiences in a Los Angeles Juvenile Detention facility. My understanding of my daughter's passion for her developing career was expanded.

The United States has the world's largest prison system. We are the only country to my knowledge that sentences juveniles to the death penalty. While crime rates for juveniles have actually dipped, the detention facilities become increasingly crowded and increasingly ineffective in rehabilitating these young souls. Should we not ask why? Should we not seek these deeper insights?

Salzman's account is invaluable in disspelling the dispassionate views of many who are only too ready to blame others (oh, but it does take a village!) for the losses within our younger generations. He fears the unknown, as we all do, when he enters this facility and first touches on the lives of these young criminals. For they have committed crimes, many of which are serious, even brutal, but to know only this about them is to know and understand, and, more importantly, solve nothing.

I can remember the first time I walked into a similar youth detention facility to meet similar "gangbangers" and offenders. I was afraid. I didn't know what to expect. What I found, almost exactly as Salzman relates in his book, were children like all children. The only difference was that these young offenders had come through the filter of neglect, abuse, and apathy that would transform most any of us into a deeply damaged psyche. But for that, they had the same hearts with the same dreams, the same aches, the same longings, the same confusions, the same hopes. Looking into their faces, I found myself looking back at myself, at my own children.

If a few of us have been given the role in society to pass judgment, then we must do so armed with knowledge and understanding of those we judge. Salzman's book helps us to gain some of that much needed knowledge and understanding. Highly recommended reading.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Passion of The Christ

A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13

At last, we could get tickets. The astoundingly popular new movie in theatres nationwide at the time of this writing, “The Passion of The Christ” as directed by Mel Gibson, had sold out in my Midwest town on the first weekend of its showing. Joe, my better half, and I were disappointed. While admittedly feeling just a little anxious about seeing onscreen the brutality of a realistic crucifixion—I had heard so much about this aspect of it, and I otherwise avoid movies promoted as violent—I was increasingly eager to see with my own eyes, judge with my own mind, what I was hearing discussed so heatedly everywhere I turned. With record breaking sales, the movie was bringing in unprecedented crowds, and Joe and I had to be patient, wait for the following weekend. Finally, we held tickets in hand.

I had read and viewed countless interviews and reviews and op-eds about Gibson’s portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion, heard the talk around the water cooler at the office, shared the insights over dinner with friends, debated the message sent to viewers over a cold one at the pub. My daughter Lorena Audra, at Florida State University to finish up her internship at the Public Defender’s Office in Tallahassee and thus complete requirements for her degree in social work, had already called, more than once, to ask: “Have you seen it yet? Have you seen it? Hurry up, Mom! I want to talk to you about it!” I was impressed with her hungry enthusiasm for deeper discussion. Lorena is no na├»ve babe in the woods. She has recently completed a 10-month cross-country trek with AmeriCorps, has traveled much of the world, works in homeless shelters and soup kitchens, rolls up her sleeves in at-risk youth centers, routinely visits inmates at prisons, sings around the campfire with disabled adults and children, dances with Texas cowboys, demands justice from her congressmen, walks Tallahassee streets at late night hours sneering fearlessly at the boys who dare whistle her down after a hard night of waitressing at the neighborhood pool hall. She wears the scars of a broken family in her own background. For all her bubbling personality, for all the tenderness of her wise heart, this young woman doesn’t go soft easy. She’s been around the proverbial block, and then a few turns, to be fully as cynical as her middle aged Mom about stories involving miracles. But this movie seemed to have grabbed her attention by the throat, and shaken it—hard.

The theatre lights dim. I have a death grip on Joe’s hand. Maybe it’s not just the prospect of witnessing an uncomfortable degree of violence on the screen that has my breath coming a little short. I can’t quite explain it. There is this, this faint echo inside, this… guilt. I am about to attend an execution, I think, and I am one of those who determined the sentence. I feel Joe’s return grip, and it is just as firm.

The opening scene is blue with moonlight. The shadow of a man in a garden, silhouettes of trees surrounding him, the soft breathing of sleepers nearby. We hear the whisper of anguished prayer, the kind we pray when our hearts are raw with terror and loneliness. Christ prays, alone, to his Father, while his disciples sleep, and for a moment he is more son of man than Son of God, for he feels as we feel, and the sweat runs down his face, lit by the moon, as he trembles with premonition. A silent figure with haunting eyes glimpses between the silhouetted trees, watching, listening. Satan is played by a female figure, male voice dubbed over, androgynous and as oddly seductive in its manner as any evil. This silent figure is always near.

It is some time into the movie before I feel the first hot flush of tears wash over my eyes. Perhaps I have been prepared by all the talk. Perhaps I know the story well enough. There are no surprises. If my breathing strains at the merciless scourging, I do not, will not, look away. How can I? It is my hand that holds the whip. It is I who have dealt the punishment. It is I who nevertheless receive the reward of mercy and forgiveness. And so I bear witness.

The moment that breaks me down and pushes me over is one that taps into my mother’s heart. I have a daughter, I have a son, also, and like Mary’s, he is tall and handsome and strong. I have felt him grow inside my womb, I have birthed him, nursed him, guided his first step. I have taught him and I have sat through nights beside him when he was ill or woken from a nightmare. If harm were to come to him, I would give my life a thousand times over to save his, and give it again, without a moment of hesitation. If a blow would fall upon him, I would feel it on my own body and cry out. I watch as Mary’s face pales with pain. I watch as she struggles through the crowd massed around to see her son carry His cross, even as the soldiers continue to beat Him. She can do nothing, nothing to stop them, nothing to stop what must be, what her son Himself has accepted fully as the cup that is His to drink. She can, however, let Him see her among that crazed and maddened crowd, let His eyes meet hers for an instant, offering the support of her mother’s heart through eyes alone. This, I understand. When her son falls to His knees beneath the terrible weight He carries, Mary recalls instantly the little boy fallen in the dust of the road that runs along their house and how she rushes to Him, embracing him, soothing away His pain. This time, she can’t save Him, nor even hold Him, but her eyes send her love to Him across the crowd, and He is strengthened by it.

As witness of this scene, one that resonates in me so deeply that I grow dizzy with the pain of empathy and understanding, I allow my own tears to flow freely. I am broken and healed simultaneously. Beside me, Joe weeps with me, surely as a son recalling the infinite comfort of his own mother.

We all know how the story ends. Or, at least, where it ends when the last page of the Book is turned. Beyond that it is continued individually in our own lives and through our own daily choices and decisions, as lifelong witnesses to the sacrifice made for each and every one of us.

When the screen at last has gone black, we sit motionless as the rest of the crowd slowly clears. It is not the usual movie audience, I note, but one of most varied ages and types, including bent women with white hair, taking each careful step along the aisle behind a walker. The silence in the theater is heavy, and I still feel Joe’s fingers wrapped tightly around my own. We wait until the theater is empty, last credits scrolled from the screen, before at last we too rise and leave.

There had been plans to meet with others, somewhere across town, perhaps a dinner, perhaps a shared beer and friendly chatter. But we both decide to cancel. “Let’s go home,” Joe says quietly, “let’s talk, I’d like to talk about what we’ve seen…”

Only hours later, Lorena Audra calls again. Yes, I said, we’ve seen it. Yes, let’s talk. She tells me about the new church she’s found, a pastor who has a personal history of endured pain, reason to understand, harsh experience of the sort that makes the heart tender with compassion. We talk for a long time, we talk on another day, too, and then another. Her heart seems to be overflowing, her mind fills with questions, and new answers to questions. She sounds happy. She recalls a car accident she was in a couple years ago, her tiny red Toyota broad sided by another car, spiraling into the air and turning, turning, turning over and over several times, knocking her unconscious inside, where she sat behind the wheel without a seatbelt on. When she woke in the ambulance, a small cut bled along her hairline, now mostly hidden beneath the blond strands of her hair. One small cut. “Mom?” she says. “I’m thinking now… maybe that night I wasn’t alone in that car. What a comforting thought, that someone cares that much about me…”

Having held back from all the vapid discussions around water coolers and in neighborhood pubs previously, I'm glad now I can offer my own perspective. And that is: Gibson has courageously created a masterpiece. I would change nothing. I know the story so well, as many of us do, yet seeing it on screen so vividly left a powerful effect that haunts me still, days after seeing it, and perhaps lifelong. The entire movie is an invitation to explore one's heart, one's conscience, one's spirituality, one's life. It is a movie that changes lives.

And is the violence gratuitous? I have heard so much about this—the violence of Christ’s crucifixion. And I am offended by the accusation. How can our society be so hypocritical? In a time when we allow pornography on every venue, referring to this abuse of human rights and dignity as "freedom of expression", when we allow our children to play video games that glamorize murder, when every other movie on the screen today makes a sport of killing and torment, when child abuse has become rampant, and war rages across the planet.... we dare call a movie that realistically portrays the suffering one man, Son of God, endures for each and every one of us ... too violent? How dare we. I suspect it is our shame of the hammer and nail we each hold in our own hands that allows such rationalization.

I highly recommend this movie. You might wish to read the Book, too.

(Although I first reviewed this movie when it was in the theatres, my family watched it again on Christmas Day, 2004, in honor for the meaning of this holiday, too often forgotten. And so I post it on Christmas. My gift of good will to all men and women.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Rings of My Tree - by Jane E. Cunningham

Book Review
by Zinta Aistars

The Rings of My Tree – by Jane E. Cunningham
ISBN: 1595263489
Publisher: Llumina Press, 2004
160 pgs.

The monsters and beasts in my childhood bedtime stories were not imaginary. They were flesh and blood and in human form, and usually they wore the uniforms of the Red Army. They marched in my parents’ memories, relentless and cruel, driving them from their homes in Latvia during World War II. My parents were refugees, displaced to camps in Germany in the 1940’s while awaiting sponsors for their immigration to the United States. Although I was born in the States, I have known two homes, two cultures, two languages, two histories, and the stories on which I was raised have become a part of my ethnic inheritance.

Reading Jane E. Cunningham’s book about another Latvian woman’s personal journey as a refugee from Latvia to the United States during the war was like hearing the stories of my parents all over again. What amazed me, however, were the accuracy of perception and a to-the-core understanding of an experience the author could not have shared. Cunningham, after all, is not Latvian. She is an Irish-American living in Connecticut, a teacher, and no closer to the Latvian experience than, well, crossing the street, as it turned out. For 45 years, Cunningham has known and befriended her neighbor, Mirdza Vaselnieks Labrencis. Now a woman in her mid-eighties, Mirdza has shared her stories about her home in Latvia and her journey to America with her most attentive neighbor, resulting in this slender but powerful book. Cunningham has even written it as a first-person account—a daring move, but one at which she was surprisingly successful. In nearly every detail and perception, the story is Mirdza’s. It is also the story of most all Latvian refugees.

In the preface, Cunningham notes of Mirdza: “She has entrusted her story to me to record for anyone who thinks freedom is an automatic entitlement or that punishment is a direct result of something you have done.” The trust is well-placed. Cunningham captures the nuances of this woman’s personality and experience precisely and movingly, this survivor who walks now with a limp as a reminder of war injuries, but a spirit of quiet joy and intensified appreciation for the gift of life so nearly lost. “I have been spared for some reason,” notes the elderly woman. “I don’t think God would be happy with me if I wasn’t happy back.”

Born in 1920 in this tiny country on the Baltic Sea, Mirdza recalls a childhood that flourished in freedom. The thought that she would lose that freedom and everything she had thus far known as her life by 1939, when the Soviets forcefully occupied the Baltic States—Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania—was incomprehensible, unimaginable. When the first rumblings of war to the east could be heard, young Mirdza was attending school in the town of Dobele (where my own father was born and that I was privileged to visit at about the age which Mirdza here describes). While the rulers of larger and more powerful countries gathered to negotiate away the land, liberty, and lives of these small nations, she played cards and read favorite books and giggled in youthful innocence with her friends, as yet unaware of what was to come.

The Baltic nations knew oppression. One of the oldest countries still in existence today, Latvia has a bloody and harsh history of one Superpower after another taking control of its land and enslaving its people. Dating in its official history from the early 1200’s, but with cultural roots even further back, Latvia had by World War II known only 20 years of independence. Two decades out of seven centuries. Perhaps the cruelest of oppressors, however, was the one clamoring at her borders now: Russia.

“There was a lot to learn about making concessions in life,” Cunningham writes in Mirdza’s voice about her predecessors and their lessons in survival. “They were survivors. They… knew how to be happy and celebrate even the smallest treasures in life, for they had learned to cultivate happiness from oppressed soil.”

Mirdza quickly begins to learn these same lessons for herself as Communists overtake Latvia. Karlis Ulmanis, then president, disappeared into Russia, presumably to his execution, on the night of June 11, 1940, along with thousands of other Latvians. Overnight, the Communist Party became the only government allowed, and anyone who was a threat, or was perceived as a threat to this brutal ruler, was deported to Siberia, usually to their death. Town officials, newspaper journalists, municipal workers, church leaders, leaders of educational institutions, teachers, business owners, landowners, anyone with a voice that was known to be outspoken was added to the list of those destined for deportation, and, in most cases, death. Joseph Stalin had used his sickle, emblem on the red flag of Soviet Russia, to “decapitate Latvia’s freedom.”

“Latvians of my generation remember the dates of June 14-15, 1941, the way Americans remember December 7, 1941. These two days and the week after mark the first official Soviet Mass Deportation of Latvian from their homeland, taking them to either their execution or the Siberian hard labor camps… Only Communism would reign from now on… Each day and night we lived in fear, holding on to all that we were—Latvians of good character who lived by the Golden Rule. Thousands of good-living citizens were literally rounded up on that June night by Soviet armed guards and put, sometimes thrown, into trucks and hauled away to be shoved into cattle cars at the train station for their ride to Siberia… well educated, civil people who paid the ultimate price because of Stalin’s egomaniacal, despotic fervor for our fertile land and its gateway to the Baltic Sea. The Soviet sphere was not a matter of race, creed or color. It was political ideology gone berserk.” (pg. 11)

Yet another crucial understanding of this tiny country’s position in the war that Cunningham brings to Mirdza’s story is the bloodied rock and hard place in which Latvia found itself during the German-Soviet War between Stalin and Hitler. How to choose? Which way to run? How does one survive in this hell between two crazed despots? Flung between one army and the other, those left behind after the Soviet deportations either fled as refugees or marched into battle. While few had sympathy for the German side in the war, many felt that they had a better chance of survival, and a better chance to regain their freedom, with the Germans than with the Russians. Germans would swallow the country’s culture, turning it into everything German. Many believed, however, and rightfully so, that to side with the Soviets could only mean mass death and deportation. To those caught in the middle of this grist, learning to trust no one, to always watch one’s back, to reveal nothing, became the means of survival, which continued throughout the Soviet years (Latvia finally regained her independence from Soviet Russia in November 1991).

Mirdza’s story tells of her time under Communist and German rule, learning to “roll with the punches” of two Superpowers as they moved their borders back and forth across Latvia. “As fervently as we were not Communists, we were not German National Socialist collaborators or sympathizers either. Latvia was forcibly occupied… When your country is no longer your country and army trucks and tanks go up and down the road where only a few cars and horses with wagons used to drive, it is impossible to forget that life is moment by moment, breath by breath… always on the edge of disaster. No one was safe.” (pg. 19)

A decision had to be made. To stay and or to go. Both options were a life risk. Both involved an end to life as Mirdza and her people had known it. Eventually, Mirdza joined many and became a refugee. “Latvians were becoming like lemmings going to the sea to save themselves from the barbaric Russian bear.” (pg. 24) Mirdza was separated from her family, believing them all lost to the war, a young woman alone, running for her life.

To survive—“where there is life, there is hope”—Mirdza undergoes a psychological shifting in her spirit and in her psyche. “Inside my still anesthetized cocoon, the soul of the self is changing. This forced-by-war metamorphosis was a lonely place to be, and yet it seemed to be a place of unconscious, unfolding change that surfaced through a new, foreign determination that surprised me. Survival is a funny thing… tied to self-respect. The greedy monster ministers of war had separated my family, killed some of my friends, issued a warrant for my life, bombed my house… raped and pillaged my country and took away the normal use of my left side… the caterpillar in my mind was losing its slow-crawling legs and I have no idea when the wings of courage developed, but there was a flapping inside of me.” (pgs. 31-32)

Pushed to its limits, human nature shows its true colors and true fiber. A frightened girl emerges a strong, determined young woman, doing what she must to survive and to establish some semblance of a new life for herself. It is not in her nature to be bold, Cunningham writes of her heroine, nor is it the nature of a nation to be subjected to the depravity of war. Those who cannot adapt—die. Those who find wings and tap into a core wisdom of resilience—live. Mirdza makes a decision to live.

To survive one does what one must, sometimes shutting off the mind, other times shutting off the heart. When required, both are called back into action. Cunningham writes of Mirdza’s life in German refugee camps with a compassionate honesty, never glossing over Mirdza’s very human moments of weakness, but letting her moments of personal heroism quietly shine in their own illumination. When Mirdza meets a Latvian man in 1948, she marries him, sensing that two survive better than one. At the birth of her first child in 1950, her battered heart opens fully to allow her to feel the first real love she has known—as a mother for her son.

When a sponsor offers Mirdza and her family an opportunity to immigrate in 1950 to the United States, she knows a sustaining gratitude. “It took a lot of love for people in the allied countries to sponsor the displaced persons after the war, and it was not an act of kindness that we took for granted.” (pg 132)

But Mirdza finds that being an immigrant carries with it a stigma that blinds those who will not see. From those who cannot see beyond the fatigue and poverty of the refugee, who cannot fathom that other cultures are no less valuable than their own, in America she encounters a new kind of bigotry and another variation of oppression. “Maybe because I was born in freedom and raised in a household of properness and had a good, solid education in many disciplines, it did not occur to me that I would ever be considered less valuable than anyone else or discriminated against simply because I was a displaced victim of war. I never once thought that some Americans or anyone in the world could think less of someone who had never done anything wrong to them.” (pg. 132) The family sponsoring the Latvian immigrants eventually asks if they might have Mirdza’s son (they are childless), as if to immigrants a child would mean any less than merchandise to barter, and they offered acres of land in exchange. With all that war does to the survivor, values as deep seated as a mother’s love, however, are unchanged, and Mirdza and her family eventually break away from their sponsors and form a new life in a new home. Hard work does not slow them; their debts are soon paid, and with time they have a home of their own.

Mirdza’s family continues to feel the sting of discrimination. Because of her foreign accent, she is assumed to be uneducated. Because of her background in a different culture she is assumed inferior. Finding a community of other Latvian immigrants becomes a lifeline to sanity. In her home, she senses the ostracization of her neighbors, but in her Latvian community she relaxes into creating a home in exile. When at last one neighbor crosses the street to knock on her door and speak to her, take the time to get to know her and listen to her story of survival—Mirdza’s warmth unfolds.

It is this story that becomes her bridge to acceptance in her home away from home. Many years later, Mirdza is able to connect with her father, for long years thought killed in the war, but still alive in Soviet Latvia. A correspondence begins between one world and another that cannot always cross cultural differences. When the time comes that Latvians from behind the Iron Curtain are allowed travel to the United States, Mirdza is eager to show off her new home. So much to see, she notes, historic sites, great cities, immeasurable abundance. But for those who are coming from the Soviet Union, it is the American grocery stores that hold the greatest fascination.

“With eyes practically popping out of her head in the produce department of a super-size grocery store, my normally reserved sister whispered her questions to me in Latvian: ‘How can you just walk around this orange lying on the floor? Why do Americans just let food lie on the floor and not pick it up? Why is there one entire aisle for dog and cat food? Are American animals that difficult to feed? Why is there a pharmacy in a grocery store? How many kinds of shampoo do Americans need?’ By the time we got back to my house not only was I exasperated from trying to explain capitalism, but I realized that her world and mine could never mesh again. The war and development of an evil ideology had truly separated our daily lives… Instead of being bowled over by American abundance, I think she was disappointed by our careless treatment of it.” (pg 156)

On the other hand, Mirdza also realizes that her sister from Soviet Latvia cannot comprehend the constant and typically smiling American face. Smiling now herself, Mirdza acknowledges, “I couldn’t answer her… through my own lasting grin. I was so American… Smiles come from freedom.”

In 1994, Mirdza returns to a free Latvia, 50 years after leaving as a refugee. She visits the graves of her parents. She visits her sister, whose now pleasant and quiet, easy-paced life in free Latvia bears little comparison to her own in the United States. War changes everything. Perhaps the only thing the two sisters have in common anymore, aside from their roots and their language, is that both teach their children to count the years of a tree by the growth rings in its wood.

Cunningham’s account of a story so far, surely, from her own as an Irish-American living in Connecticut is testimony of the ability to bridge two cultures and two very different perspectives on life to form very human bonds of friendship. This slender volume is highly recommended for anyone willing to take a moment to appreciate what makes us all different… and what makes us all the same.

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