Monday, October 31, 2011

The Ruins of Mega Livadi, Serifos

This past week, with what the Greeks call "the crisis" intensified, with the protestors in Thessaloniki saying "NO!" to the military parade celebrating "Oxi Day," I got to thinking about this little tractate, "The Ruins of Mega Livadi," that I wrote several years ago, when people were optimistic about the economy. Mega Livadi was the site of the 1916 Miners' Strike, a response to the terrible working conditions in the iron ore mines. Four miners were murdered for protesting and demanding an eight-hour work day. The 1916 Miners' Strike was one of the defining moments in the Greek Labor Movement and marks its inception. 

The Ruins of Mega Livadi

Port of Mega Livadi
In Mega Livadi a donkey lies in the shade of the town’s ancient plane tree. Geese honk. Hens and their chicks peck in the dust near a few cars parked in the shade. Ruined houses where miners once lived dot steep hill plunging in the port, a good port, sheltered and so deep the waters already extraordinary blue approaches black. The neo-classical villa, built by the German mine-owners decays. Patches of stucco fall away. There’s no glass in the long, elegant windows or in transoms above heavy wooden doors, though the palm trees flanking the wind entry are tall and healthy (the word for palm is phoenika, phoenix).
Villa can seen on the left.
            Next to the villa is a monument to four miners who in 1916 were shot demonstrating for higher wages and an eight-hour workday. Their names, cut in marble, are Themistoklis Kousoupis, Mihalis Zilis, Mihalis Metrofanis, and Yiannis Protopappas. Oleander blooms profusely by blazing marble. We’re dizzy in noonday sun.
      The village is quiet. Maybe there are twenty of us here. Some eating, some swimming, some fishing, some sitting with friends observing the summer day. On the terraces of the two beachfront tavernas people sit, sip ouzo and gossip. Old women wear black dresses and white headscarves. One still wears the traditional stiff sunbonnet, cardboard covered with calico. Blue, red, and yellow plastic chairs glare against whitewash while painted boats on the sea or banked on the beach upside-down under trees radiate their oranges and turquoises. Children playing in the shallow water call out to their siblings and cousins, “Come play!”—to grandmother, aunt, and mother, “Look! Look!”
Painting by Aliki
       Canaries sing from cages nailed up on either side of the taverna door. Kirea Maria watches soaps as she peels potatoes. She brings us a salad garnished with capers picked from the bushes which grow wild on the mountainside, bread baked in the island bakery’s wood-fired oven, and mizithra, the homemade goat cheese that’s sweet and sour and creamy. She has one gold tooth in her big smile and talks lovingly about her potted plants: scented geranium, jade, begonia, amaryllis, carnation, aster, crassula, vinca, basil. She directs us to the old springhouse, built by the miners for their pleasure and later damaged by an earthquake, so the thermal waters run into the sea rather than into the baths.
      The iron-ore mine gapes huge in the hillside of blooming euphorbia and yarrow; beside it a slagheap tumbles into the sea. The old technology rusts—tracks, carts lying on their sides, their wheels sometimes a few feet away, the cantilevered loading bridge reaching the port where no freight ship or ferry has docked in years.
The Cyclops, the wild, cannibalistic shepherd, imprisoned that intruder Odysseus in a cave on Serifos. And you can see his rage in these buckling tracks, upturned carts and far-flung wheels. His hands would be stained with rust, just as ours are after we pick through the slag-heap looking for the extraordinary quartz-crystal laced with red ore. But it’s so peaceful here, in spite of the monument to protest and martyrdom. Perhaps the ruin is simply ruin, and we can identify the monster, who’s one-eyed, who helps and destroys. For in a later story, the    Cyclops assisted Hephaestos, helping him make the arms, armor, and metal ornaments of the Gods.         
       Before the iron-ore mines in Mega Livadi closed, twenty-five thousand people lived on Serifos. Now there are eight-hundred year-round residents, though in summer, on the other side of the island, Livadi, the harbor village, and Hora, the mountain village above it, are packed with near-naked Athenians and Europeans eating, drinking, swimming, sleeping in the sand, wandering the maze of flagstone streets. So in a country where they say everything happens late, new hotels and restaurants go up rapidly and cover the austere mountains.
       In 1987 we celebrated the first gas station on Serifos with a panayiri, we ate a feast at long tables. Musicians played and we danced between the pumps. Until the gas station opened, you had to get gas from Halidas, the storeowner who used to be the richest man on the island. You had to know the village and you had to know Greek. Now they’ve opened a rent-a-car and a rent-a-bike. They transformed donkey paths to roads and built condominiums beside them. The beaches we used to hike to on special occasions are crowded with tourists talking on cell phones.
     Imagine it. When the ferry arrives, a mini-van stenciled with HOTEL MEGA LIVADI waits to take you to the newly renovated villa where each room has a bath, a phone, and a refrigerator. You walk ten steps to the beach. You explore the old mine shafts and dig crystals from the walls. You hike high, well-marked paths by the sea, pay a small fee, enter the restored springhouse, soak in warm curative waters, then cool off in the sea. You meet the same woman we met today, a smiling woman wearing a flying-nun sunbonnet and herding her goats over ruined railroad tracks. She calls out, “Kalimera!” (good day!). She asks questions and approves each of the answers you give in faltering Greek with “Bravo!” She wishes you a good road and a good trip, then climbs to high rock to watch her herd and look out to sea, same as the ancients.
Painting by Aliki


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy Imagination: Everyone Is Invited!

I figured out how to fix the terrible thing that happened to the people who were hurt and killed. We’ll invent a happy ending and invite everyone to it.
—Zoë Barnstone-Clark, age 3 ½, after 9/11

Once upon a time, in the past week, a confluence of events—the “end” of the Iraq War, the death of Gaddafi, the growing Occupy Movement, and rekindling my friendship with Abigail—got me thinking about this essay I wrote on March 8th, 2003, just before the beginning of the Iraq War,  which the U.S. waged despite the protests of millions around the world. Like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War was justified with lies. Just as Vietnam dominated my childhood, so the Iraq War dominated Zoë's. I was a teenager when the last troops withdrew from Vietnam;  Zoë is now 14, and American troops are scheduled to leave Iraq before the New Year. 

I still believe that we can bring peace and justice into being, if only we occupy our imaginations. Here is the essay I wrote on the eve of the Iraq War, with some added illustrations and edits.

The Practical Power of Fairy Tales

Do you remember when you
Were read to as a child?
—Anne Sexton

In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected.
—Charles Dickens

Zoë - Pink Phase
Once upon a time, before I knew better, I tried to keep my daughter Zoë from Barbie dolls. Sometime before her third birthday, she refused to wear anything but pink dresses—the frillier, shinier, and fluffier the better—and she deeply wanted a Barbie. Not to be defeated, I ordered her a Smartee brand doll, marketed to people in my socio-educational bracket. The doll, Destiny the Doctor, came in scrubs, with a tiny medical bag, stethoscope, thermometer, a comb and brush for her long hair, and a story book about how Destiny, with her smarts and hard work, became a doctor and mentored a little girl who also wanted to be a doctor. Destiny looked exactly like Barbie, was three times as expensive, and was poorly made (her impossibly long thin leg fell off immediately and was lost). After I read her the book, an uninspiring utilitarian endorsement of the work ethic, Zoë said, as she often did, “Now let me read it to you.” Here is an abridged version of her tale: “Once upon a time there was a girl named Destiny. She always wanted to be a doctor. So she worked hard and she became a doctor in the hospital, where she met the handsome prince, who fell in love with her because she was very smart and very beautiful, and they got married and lived happily ever after.” 
          Zoë, like Alice in Wonderland, chose the enchanted rabbit hole instead of the boring book that her sister read that “had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'” 

Lewis Carroll's Original Alice
from Lenny's Alice in Wonderland Site
I take pictures and conversation to stand in for the imagination; a book without pictures and conversation has no use, according to Alice, because it is merely informational and practical. Zoë chooses to live in wonderland, to narrate constantly and animate, not only Barbies, but all her dolls and animals.
Terri Windling has said, “Fairy tales were not my escape from reality as a child; rather they were my reality." I, too, believed then (and maybe now) that I could fly; my dolls and stuffed animals came to life at night; animals talked, humans became animals and visa versa; tiny people might live beneath a leaf; true love heals, saves, even transforms the physical world; all children are princesses and princess, regardless of external material wealth or social rank or ethnicity. One of my favorite fairy tales is Charles Perrault’s  "The Fairies" (“Toads and Diamonds"): 
Once upon a time a beautiful and good girl lived with her ill-tempered and ugly sister and widowed mother, who made her work all day. When she went to the fountain to fetch some water, a fairy disguised as an old peasant woman asked for some water. The girl gladly served her water and the fairy rewarded her generosity. Every time she spoke, flowers and jewels came from her mouth. The mother sent her favored daughter to the fountain, so she would receive the same gift. This time the fairy disguised herself as a princess. The ugly girl rudely refused her request for water and the fairy replied, “I will give you a gift to equal your discourtesy. Every time you speak, a toad or snake will come from your mouth.” Of course, the prince fell in love with the good and generous girl, they married and they lived happily ever after, while the ugly and selfish sister was so disgusting, even her mother turned against her and drove her into the forest, where she died miserable and alone.
I see “Fairies” as a paradigm for or story of the making of the poem itself. The fairy tale does what the poet (or this poet, anyway) wants to do—make the word into flesh, into a thing, into matter. Words are more than the spiritual manifestation of the self, they are the self’s visible embodiment, separate and acting in the world. “Fairies” enacts metaphors: "Your good words are flowers and diamonds; your bad words are snakes and toads." So, too, do other fairy tales make the metaphor perform in the narrative. In “Rapunzel” love is blind, for the prince is blinded; but love also heals and makes us see, for Rapunzel’s kiss of true love heals the prince’s  eyes. Fairy tales show the poet the muscular energy of metaphor to transport and transform. 
Ad for Trucking Company in Greece
In Greek, μεταφορά (metaphora) means transportation, and in Greece freight trucks are painted with the word. Emerson was probably playing with etymology when he wrote in "The Poet": “For all language is vehicular, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance.” By contrast to the metaphor, the simile attenuates the power of imagination; it is like consciousness, in that the mind makes those comparisons, but it is rational and explanatory, doesn't risk leaping into a new shape or skin. The simile says, this is merely a shade, not reality. I don't want to engage in the kind of extreme political statements about simile that some contemporary poets have made. Sometimes a simile is wild and right in a poem. Anyone who listens to children can hear that they express what they see in marvelous similes. I'm positing the idea that in adult poetry the rhetoric of the simile often creates a distance between the two elements, while the metaphor yokes the elements together. In terms of I and thou, the simile is at a remove (like pity) while metaphor is empathy. Fairy tales have no use for similes—nothing is like anything else because in that world goodness comes into its physical form, as does badness. A man isn’t like a frog until the kiss of love makes him like a prince. He actually is a frog then a prince. A girl’s latent sexuality isn’t like sleep, it is sleep, and so on.
There are other dualities that fairy tales yoke together. Because we are introduced to fairy tales at such a young age, the fairy tale returns the adult poet to her child’s eye of wonder and to the unconscious. When I write a poem, I feel myself in the zone, where the adult and child selves, the conscious and the unconscious, the me and the not-me, the self and other are united and conversing, as in the following poem by Ruth Stone. (I spent every summer of my childhood in Vermont, imagining and living fairy tales with Ruth’s daughter, Abigail.)

Fairy Tales

The ugly duckling…
I stood behind my father’s chair so he couldn’t see my tears
When he read it to me. Hans Andersen,
I rise from your feathers every spring
And shake the snow from my windows. The sulfur sears
My eyes in a world of match girls’ luminous poverty.
I hear your hosannas that life is real and cruel.
The mad stream that takes the brave tin soldier down the flood
Flows by here. While he passes, impractical child,
On his way to death in this strange dream;
Is he still seeing the beautiful, the good?   

In this poem Ruth doesn’t retell the fairy tales so much as she creates the person who hears the stories read to her. The speaker’s child self in the poem rises from Hans Andersen’s “feathers every spring,” and sees anew, the snow shaken from the windows. And how does the child self see? The child endows full existence to “this strange dream,” the imagination; as Ruth writes, “The mad stream that takes the brave tin soldier down the flood /Flows by here.” “The mad stream” is the fairy tale, the flow of consciousness, and brings to the here and now, the girl standing behind her “father’s chair so he couldn’t see my tears / When he read it to me.” The power of the fairy tale isn’t simply the “happily ever after,” but that the happily ever after sometimes comes after suffering. Not only does the speaker “hear your hosannas that life is real and cruel,” she feels “the sulfur sear” her  eyes “in a world of match girls’ luminous poverty.” The reader becomes the freezing and starving match girl who lights each of her last matches, and sees in their small heat, the opulent world of familial love, a table brightly lit, laden with food, a warm room. In this transformational poetics, as the fairy tale enacts the metaphorical play, reading generates the metamorphosis of the self into the other, and ultimately into the writing of the poem.
Crucially, the poem sets up a tension between the “real and cruel” and “the beautiful, the good,” with the rhetorical question at the end: “While he passes, impractical child, / On his way to death in this strange dream; / Is he still seeing the beautiful, the good?” The answer is yes. We know the brave tin soldier is in true love and never stops seeing the beautiful, the good paper ballerina, no matter if he is swept downriver, to be taunted by a rat and swallowed by a fish. The question, overheard internally, is asked by the poet, who wonders whether she still sees “the beautiful, the good,” in the face of the “real and cruel.” But the adult self, who reads with the empathic child standing behind her, has already reentered the magical realm. She has emerged with a poem, not just any poem, not a pretty poem that would please former First Lady Laura Bush; ours is a poem that in a few lines deals with suffering, and class, and love. The poet becomes the “impractical child,” who suffers with the world and sees “the beautiful, the good” alternative. All poets, I would say, are “impractical children”—let’s face it, no one who’s practical, in the usual sense of the word, is going to be a poet in the twenty-first century.
Yet the practice of returning to the wondrous hopes and sorrows of the child has practical power, beyond the artifact, the poem itself, which I think is one of the many meanings of Brenda Hillman’s line, “the poem is the story of the writing of itself” (25). Freud posits that myths, legends, and fairy tales are the “wishful fantasies of whole nations, the secular dreams of youthful humanity” (440). The poetic revision of the fairy tale is also a revision of the cultural text, a creation of the utopic dream of the impractical child who in Ruth Stone’s poem cries for the ugly duckling, even knowing he is a beautiful swan; who suffers with the match girl, and with her creates a room in which she lives, warm, fed, and loved; who in Olga Broumas’s “Sleeping Beauty,” wakes the public up to “a public kiss” between women.
At the end of “Experience,” in which Emerson contends with the problem of evil, he writes: “there is victory yet for all justice, and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power." I never understood or believed him until millions across the globe marched against war, a legion of impractical children transforming genius into practical power, until Sam Hamill woke up the sleeping beauty in thousands with poets against the war. If you think I’m being impractical, let me pose an epistemological question: how do you know the world? Through the boring book Alice’s sister reads? The news media? Textbooks? Movies? By falling down the rabbit hole and remembering “when you / were read to as a child”? Fairy Tales? All of the above, of course, and much more. Emerson also writes, “that it is the universal impulse to believe, that is the material circumstance, and is the principal fact in the history of the globe” (209). Both the “real and the cruel” and “the beautiful, the good” are acts of the imagination. Alice sees no use in her sister’s book without pictures and conversation. But her sister reads her book because to her it is eminently useful. What is possible is an act of imagination. We know this because John Lennon, another impractical child, asked us to imagine peace. A preemptive strike is also an act of imagination, derived from the universal impulse to believe. Ultimately, both are equally expedient; both are fairy tales. Yet we are socialized to believe that one is more realistic than the other. Our ethical task is to understand self-reliantly that the useful, the practical are constructions, and out of that understanding to create a reality that is not cruel, but beautiful and good.
Once upon a time, before the world changed, I tried to protect my daughter by keeping my daughter from Barbies. After 9/11 Zoë taught me the practical power of fairy tales: “I figured out how to fix the terrible thing that happened to the people who were hurt and killed. We’ll invent a happy ending and invite everyone to it.” Happily ever after.

Works Cited
Sigmund Freud, The Freud Reader, edited by Peter Gay (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989).
Heidi Anne Heiner, SurLaLune Fairy Tales
Brenda Hillman, Death Tractates (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1992).
Ruth Stone, Topography and Other Poems (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

My First Blog Post: To Abigail Blue Jay Stone with Love

On October 14, 2011, I reconnected with Abigail Blue Jay Stone, my childhood friend. Well, to say that Abigail is my childhood friend is too generic, too neutral. When I was Kiki and she was Abby, she was the sister I never had.  She was more than a sister. Three years older, she was the beloved big sister I looked up to, and who gave me courage to have a voice. Beginning when I was six, my family spent our summers in Vermont, twenty minutes away from Goshen, where Abigail lived with her two older sisters and her mother. All winter long in Indiana, I looked forward to returning home to Vermont, where I really lived, and where I’d be with Abby again.

When we had a sleepover, I’d have to spend the night in Goshen because her mom was afraid she’d lose her if she let her out of her sight—or least that’s the way it looked by my lights. If we invited Abby to come along with us to Lake Dunmore, she couldn’t come because she might drown or we might get into a car accident. I remember our picking out some Archie comics and Tiger Beat in Sid Rosen’s Ben Franklin Five and Dime, but that must have been when we’d gone to town for groceries in her mother’s station wagon. If we were lucky, we called out “Dibs on the way back!” quicker than anyone else, and we got to ride backwards, the broken yellow lines, pine trees, and mountains receding in the rear window as we sang “The Happy Wanderer” – “ValderEEE, Val-der-AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA! “

Like so many girls, we were in love with the Beatles. In 1964, when CBS broadcast the summer reruns of the Ed Sullivan Show, we walked (probably barefoot) the two miles to Abigail’s aunt’s to watch. There were thousands upon thousands of tiny baby toads hopping all over the damp dirt road, and innumerable fireflies in the fields, and the dark was nearly pure and the millions of stars in the Milky Way shone brighter than anything, and I was with Abby (and some other girls, too)—and all of this added up to joy and to my joy to see the Beatles almost live on TV. We sat on the rug, a braided one my memory says, impatient for Ed to finish up his introduction, the jerky dance he did as he spoke. When Beatles sang, I felt love catch in my throat. During “Till There Was You,” their names floated beneath their faces in white caps: PAUL, RINGO, GEORGE, JOHN – SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED. We lived the Beatles’ songs and understood the world through their music and lyrics. We’d sprawl on Abby’s bed listen to all our Beatles albums over and over on her record player (yes, we had record players). If one of us jumped to the wide-plank floor and made the record skip, she’d have to apologize to the girl whose favorite Beatle was singing. Abby’s favorite was George. Mine was Paul because John—sorry girls—was married. As the Beatles’ imagination developed, so did ours, and my favorite became John—he still is.

As a teenager, Abby became Blue Jay, learned how to play guitar, and wrote songs. She still writes wonderful songs, still has an astonishing voice. Abigail, whether she was Abby or Blue Jay, didn’t leave behind her child self. Abigail and Phoebe, her older sister, still pulled out the cardboard boxes full of miniatures and we played “Tiny Furniture.” We made a whole village on the front porch floor. Abigail had a different voice for each of the figures, miniature Minnie and Mickey Mouse, the little people and bears and dogs. She acted out whole dramas impromptu. I was shy, afraid to try a voice, and Abigail drew me out: “Here you go, Kiki, you can have Minnie. She’s very nice and will tell you what she wants you to say.” I don’t know if those were the exact words, but something like that, something reassuring, something to give me faith that there’s “magic everywhere.”

The back of the Stone’s old farmhouse was an apple orchard, and deep in the orchard was a white playhouse, where we’d enter our fairy tale in the making. One day Abby and I were sisters—orphaned sisters, of course—and a witch cast a spell on her that made her forget who she was and who I was. I chased her through the orchard, past her mom tending the hollyhocks and foxgloves that leaned against peeling clapboard, out to the road, round the big maple. “Please remember you’re my sister! Come with me, come back home!”
“I don’t know who you are! Why are you bothering me? Go away!”
I kept pleading and she stayed in character so convincingly that I took it to heart. “Please stop, Abby.”
“My name’s not Abby, you fool, it’s Dianne.”
I turned away, bent over the car’s dark blue hood to hide my face, and cried. Abby stroked my hair. “What’s the matter, Kiki?”
“You were being mean. You weren’t you.”
“It wasn’t me, it was a pretend person.”
“You didn’t know who I was anymore.”
“It was just a game. I know who you are, Kiki. Let’s play something else, okay?”

When I spent the night, I didn’t know if I’d be in Goshen one night or several. I guess sometimes my parents weren’t up for making the drive the next day and they couldn’t call ahead. Communication wasn’t so easy in those days. For a while, Abigail’s family only had a pay phone on the front porch. We didn’t even have a phone in our Vermont home for the first three years, and after that we had a party line (like “Mayberry, R.F.D.,” minus the always happily resolved family drama). I was happy for as much time as I could get with Abby, so I felt a mixture of disappointment and gladness when we heard the rare vehicle on the dirt road and I recognized our family car arriving in a cloud of dust. My parents and my two younger brothers, radically wired and skinny, would make their way through the high grass to the farmhouse, with Poochie and Coalie barking crazily from the screened-in front porch. The much-mythologized get-together commenced. We cooked together (with the cats, George Harrison and Frank O’Hara, underfoot). Dinner was spaghetti, garlic bread, and salad. We ate sitting around the fireplace, roasted marshmallows for dessert. We played the poetry game. We made art and we were, each of us, “Marvelous!”

We both have parents who are larger-than-life literary figures, renowned for their work, generosity, and mentoring and nurturing aspiring writers. They do possess all the wonderful characteristics attributed to them. And they also wounded us, not on purpose. I think that for them their art is salvific, and that, like many children of people who produce and excel, somehow we got the message that they loved us for what we make, not for who we ARE. Abigail and I realized how much we miss each other, how much we long to be active friends again, because of a Facebook misunderstanding that was my fault, and about which I’m so sorry.  I gushed one too many times about her mother being my poetry mother. Abigail protested, “YOU and I were friends when we were children. You were friends with ME, Kiki, not my mother. If all you can say to me is how much you adore my mother, then please tell her, don't tell me.” Maybe it’s taken me this long to get over being the adoring younger one. Maybe it takes over a half a century to heal, and to understand that I am loved in return. Maybe it takes all these years to find my voice and confess, “I look at your profile ALL the time, longing to reconnect with you. I'm crying as I write this. You can't even imagine how much I love you, have always loved you.”

You see, we share not only history but such similar upbringings,” Abigail wrote. “We have writing and everything, absolutely everything, in common." And she’s right.  We both have a Jewish father and a Christian mother and have changed Jewish names. We’re Ashkenazi from the same region. We both have suicides in our family. Since it’s everything, absolutely everything, the list goes on and on. When I constructed this blog a year ago, I thought I’d post some memories, some little vignettes that might help me give some shape for my research on family history, anti-Semitism and prejudice, mental illness and suicide. I want to write a counter-narrative to the denial narrative. Since then, I’ve been casting about for over a year, trying to find voice. I couldn’t even find a way to post something, not a sentence.

When we were children—and then two days ago—Abigail showed me that sometimes we make mistakes and hurt a loved one, but love—real love that sees and knows the other—heals and redeems. She reminded me of who I am and who she is. We together—playing pretend, writing, singing, drawing, dancing, telling secrets, listening to Beatles, walking barefoot on the dirt road in Goshen—were free in our imaginations. Abigail made me brave. She showed me I have a voice, and, like Walt Whitman, I can speak in as many voices as I want: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Abigail’s loving, corrective words opened the floodgates, as they say. That’s why I’m devoting my very first blog post to her. From the beginning, she’s been my friend, spiritual sister, and support. And now she’s given me a way to begin again.