Always Bring Nice Clothes

It’s not every day that you leave Malawi having met one of the Republic’s former presidents. Yes, I, Lisa Vihos had the honor and pleasure to meet His Excellency Dr. Bakili Muluzi on Sunday, July 16 for breakfast and conversation. Dr. Muluzi was the first democratically-elected president of Malawi, serving two 5-year terms from 1994 to 2004.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Blantyre and my friend Elizer Kalilombe informed me that I would be having breakfast with the former president at his home in Limbe on Sunday morning.

“President of what?” I said.

“President of Malawi,” she said.

“But I don’t have any nice clothes to wear!” I lamented. She assured me that what I wore would not matter and that Dr. Muluzi was a very down-to-earth person who just wanted to hear more about the children’s reading garden.

So, off we went, myself, Elizer, and another friend, Lakeland University graduate, Ndamyo Mwanyongo, up into the hills above Limbe to the home of the former president. We first chatted in the sunroom, and then moved to the dining room for a lovely three-course breakfast. First, cereal. Then, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. Then, a vegetable omelet with sausages on the side, potatoes, and more veggies. It was delicious.

Dr. Muluzi had a lot of good questions for me about how the project came to be, how the work was progressing, how did we envision spreading the concept to other schools, and what was our timetable. We reviewed all this and he expressed his excitement that this project is underway. He recognized the reading garden as something that will provide a real boost to a culture of reading in Malawi. He asked to be kept apprised about how things go in the time to come. He hoped that when I return in the future, I will give him advance notice so he can arrange a meeting with the Minister of Education. But, he told us to keep moving forward and wished us the very best in this endeavor.

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Me, Dr. Muluzi, and Elizer Kalilombe. She and he are from the same area, and have known each other a long time.

We went out to the patio overlooking a vast expanse. It was a beautiful view and he was pleased to point out—way off in the distance—the campus of Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) that I had visited with my friends on Saturday. It shone like a glimmering island nestled far away in the rolling hills. Like everything else about the morning, it seemed magical.

We took photos. he gave me his card, and we said our goodbyes. I have sent him a handwritten thank you note and I will most definitely keep in touch with him in the time to come. It is not every day that a person meets a former president.

Just remember, wherever you go, always bring nice clothes. You never know whom you may have the honor to meet when you least expect it.

As I head home to Wisconsin tomorrow, I will cherish the memory of this wonderful meeting with Dr. Muluzi. I trust that having his eyes on this project bodes well for the Malawi Children’s Reading Garden. Although we did not yet break ground, we made some excellent headway. I think things should start happening in September. We are definitely on the road.

Today’s Good Omen: Blue Seeds

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Caroline and I in her office this morning.

Today was my first full day in Malawi and it felt so heartening and productive to be back with my friends in Lilongwe. I spent a good part of the morning at the Demonstration School with the principal, Caroline Majiga, and we talked about the steps we need to take to move forward on the children’s reading garden. The focus in the coming two weeks will be to plan how we will make this project be something of and for this community. I know we can do it.

I had a very warm welcome from everyone at the school today. All the children were smiling and waving when I pulled up with my bags of “stuff.” I connected with two of the Standard 4 (4th grade) teachers and showed them how I turned some of the drawings that were created by the children last time I was here into notecards and bookmarks that I plan to use as modest fundraising tools in the months to come. I visited with my friend Phillip Nachonie and talked briefly with his class of young teachers-in-training. What a great crew!

Very soon, there will be meetings with members from the Forum for Reading Education and visits with guest artists and thinkers who will lend their expertise. I don’t want to say too much more until these things start to happen. For now, rest assured that all is well.

IMG_3069I also want to say that I feel the spirit of my father, Georg, with me on this trip. He sent rainbows to Sheboygan just before I left, feathers to Kensington Gardens when I landed, and here in Lilongwe, bright blue seeds hiding in the grass having dropped from a Traveller’s Palm.  (The double L in “traveller” is the British spelling, by the way.)

It is too dark now to take a picture, but I did go out on the lawn with my flashlight to collect some seeds. It was Mel, the proprietor here at Wendels Guest House (the best place to stay if ever you are in Lilongwe) who showed me the seeds. I know dad would absolutely love them, blue being his favorite color.

According to the website, annieworldseeds.com, The Traveller’s Palm has very deep roots in folklore and tradition. There is a saying, “If a traveller stands directly in front of a Traveller’s Palm and makes a wish in good spirit, that wish will definitely come true.” You know what I will be wishing for in good spirit as I head out each day here in Malawi.

 

 

 

Father’s Day Thoughts

As it is the fourth Father’s Day since Georg left, of course, I am thinking of him this morning. Earlier this week, Facebook sent me a picture of him that I had taken the summer before he died. The strain on his face is quite visible. He was getting ready to move on. Seeing him on my news feed like that was a bit of shock. It did not remind me of Georg-the-vibrant one, but rather, Georg-the-failing. After a life full of so much creativity, joy, and adventure, he was coming to the end and he could feel it. I wish Facebook would not just randomly send memories like that. Who can one complain to about this?

Anyway, after he died, many friends who had lost a parent told me that there would come a day when I would get past the grief. I would be able to think about him and smile instead of cry. I suppose that day has arrived, more or less. I just want to remember him today and honor a few of the things he taught me or gave me, the things about him that will stay with me forever. Here are ten things I miss about Georg:

IMG_05341. Going shopping with him. He was a foodie, my dad, long before foodie was a thing. He knew how to make grocery shopping really fun.

2. Watching him stand on a ladder to work on one of his large-scale drawings. He was so dedicated to his art. His dedication still inspires me.

3. Talking about a book or a film with him. Sharing ideas.

4. Being his sous-chef in the kitchen. I chopped a lot of parsley for him over the years.

5. Eating pizza with him. He loved a good pizza.

6. Feeling his generosity of spirit when he cooked meals for large groups of friends

7. Riding bikes with him. Challenging ourselves to get up the next hill.

8. Road tripping. He loved to drive to new places. He taught me to be adventurous in life.

9. Visiting an art museum together and just wandering.

10. Knowing that always, he loved me.

If your dad is still with you, call him today and let him know you are thinking of him. Overlook his foibles and any missteps. Instead, honor his strengths.

If your dad is gone, remember the things you love about him. It is not always easy to get through this life. Things happen. But a good dad is always there to guide you, even after he is gone.

 

Running up the Hill

I’ve started running again. As with blogging, I took a long break. But, now I’m back at it. Some of you might remember that when I got laid off in the summer of 2015, I developed an activity of mind in which I attached significance to the final run up the hill near my house. My goal was the trash can at the top. I told myself, “if I can run up the hill and not stop until I get to the trash can, then I will get a good job.”

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Well, that process worked, whether you buy the causality factor or not. Not only did I land a great part-time job working for the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership as its Development and Communications Coordinator, but I also got a grant from my undergraduate alma mater, Vassar College, to build a children’s reading garden in Malawi, Africa.

As the old saying goes, be careful what you ask for. I mean, I am very proud of this project, and I know that with continued work and communication with my colleagues in Malawi, something good is going to happen. But, getting the garden off the ground (or rather, in the ground) is turning out to be challenging. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the site is on the other side of the world from my current location. Yeah, possibly. That does add a level of difficulty, for sure. Hence, my upcoming trip to Malawi to really get all the pieces in place to help the garden move forward.

A project like this requires both hope and action. I need to do certain things, and I also need the right attitude about myself and the project. If the determination needed when running up the hill can be translated over to building the garden, I am all for that. In fact, my new thing is to run up the hill to the first trash can, then run around the gazebo to the second trash can, and then keep running until I get to the light post.

IMG_2929You see how my mind works? Get past the trash to the Light, then all shall be revealed! That is the key. Do that, and all good things will come. Gardens, jobs, friends, love, abundance. Maybe even a path toward mitigating global warming and simultaneously ensuring world peace, while I’m at it. Why not aim high? Determination and positive attitude mixed with a generous dose of gratitude can make a lot of things happen. It can make all the difference in the world.

On this God-only-knows-what-number Thursday it is since Georg died, I am determined to be more determined in my efforts to do the things I have set out to do.  I encourage you to do the same. Be determined, positive, and grateful. Find a hill and a trash can and a light post, and let all those things guide you to success in your endeavors.

And then, when you get to the top, smile and say thank you. Light the way for the next person to come up. What else is there?

The Return of the Pelicans

Have you ever noticed how things happen in cycles? Politics, art history, fashion, the seasons. While I’ve tended to avoid politics here, I’ve talked a lot about the seasons. The autumn Georg died (eons ago in 2013), I was quite taken with how celebratory the trees were looking, even though my father had just passed away and I was in deep grief. What I came to realize is that the trees do their joyfully-going-dormant thing no matter who is being born or dying. That is just what trees do in the fall of the year.

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Now it is late spring, almost summer, and the pelicans have returned to North Point. Last year was the first year that pelicans had made a migratory stop in Sheboygan in quite a while. When they arrived in 2016, it caused real a ruckus among elite bird watchers and average citizens alike. Once again this year, there is a flock of migrating pelicans encamped not far from my house. It feels like they have come to visit me. I know this is not the case, but I like to think it is. I believe they have a message for me, but I must ask, what could that message be?

Last year when the pelicans came, I was living in a different world. I was happy about so many things, but those things are gone now. This is the thing about loss: it just keeps coming. I can balance it out with all the ongoing birth, renewal, and upgrades, but when you get to be my age, it is hard to stay in touch with what is fresh and new. Everything seems to be about the leavings. Leaving, leaving, leaving. Gone.

But the pelicans! They are back. And they are so. Huge.

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With nine-foot wing spans and weighing in at about 16 pounds a piece, they are some big-ass, graceful birds. This year, they are displaying a lot more movement than I witnessed last year. They are taking leisurely floats down the lakeshore, far away from their base camp on the rock jetty. They are also doing a lot more flying, just cruising around in little groups of four or five birds. Watching them soar lifts my heart.

Georg would have loved them. I so wish he was here to see this. I wish a lot of old friends were here to see this. But, they are not. It’s just me and the pelicans. I will take their visit as a gift and I will enjoy their bounty, even in the face of the loss that is an inevitable part of life. My life, your life, all our lives.

I’d like to close with Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game, a song I remember listening to when I was 10 years old. It made me cry then, and it makes me tear up now.

And the seasons, they go round and round
and the painted ponies go up and down.
We’re captive on the carousel of time.
We can’t return, we can only look behind
from where we came
and go round and round and round
in the circle game.

Hey, if you need a break from going round and round, can you please come and watch the pelicans with me?

p.s. WordPress informs me that this is my 100th blog post on Frying the Onion. Wow. How about that? What will the next cycle of 100 bring, I wonder.

This is Only a Test

For the next 60 seconds, I will be writing this blog post to see how much things have changed on WordPress since I posted almost 10 months ago. That is a long time to break from blogging. I want to come back and write consistently again in the time to come. Let’s see how this goes.

I was away in the stream of life for a long time and while I was out there, many things changed in this world. We got that new president. This development has caused great fear and concern for the future of our planet. It has also been a call to action. This action is still in process. I won’t try to analyze this right now. We all know what is at stake.

I lost an important relationship. This is a very personal story and has thrown into question everything I thought I knew about myself. Suffice it to say that having a relationship end is never an easy thing. It makes a person grieve, quiet themselves, take stock. I am doing all that. More on this at some future time, perhaps.

I traveled to Malawi twice in the past year and will be going again in July to (hopefully) finally begin the children’s reading garden that I have been planning with friends there these last many months. I hope I can plant the seeds that need to be planted and then successfully hand the project to those whom it belongs to. I am learning.

I am not one to pray for divine intervention. I have always believed that whatever I accomplish or don’t accomplish in this life is entirely up to me. I would not say I am an atheist, exactly, but I do not believe in a benevolent overlord in the sky who will swoop in and make my life work. The burden is on me.

Perhaps therein lies my problem. This life of mine is not a burden. It is a gift to me and frankly, a gift to the world, if I can only see it that way. See it and it will be so. I can wake up each day and hope for the best, from me and for me. And for this world. More on all these things in the time to come.

(Okay, this took a little longer than 60 seconds. Still, it is a test.)

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Students of Standard 4, Lilongwe Demonstration School, 12/6/16. We made pinwheels from recycled plastic bottles, inspired by William Kamkwamba, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”

An Ofrenda for Georg

fullsizerender-7Here we are, three years since Georg passed away, September 26, 2013. Not a day goes by that I do not think of him in one context or another and say to myself, “what would Georg do?” Or, if I am cooking something, I will forget for a moment that he is gone and I will think, “I should call him and tell him what I am making.” Immediately, however, I remember he is not here. I can’t tell him anything. Somehow, though, it always feels like he knows.

I think he is happy that I recently packed up a whole box of his stuff, collage papers, tiny bird effigies, plastic toys, Mexican milagros, pastels, and more. I sent them to my friend, Jarie Ruddy, who teaches art at The Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, MI. This is the place where my sister and I went to school all the years we were growing up. It is where our mother, Rosanne, taught art for 40 years, and where Georg taught art for seven.

The school is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and one part of the celebration is to create a large ofrenda (altar) to “celebrate the lives of the people who contributed significantly to the story of the school.” I’m so glad I could send off a box of Georg’s things to the children in Jarie’s Stage IV class. They have been learning about Georg and his passion for line, color, and things that fly. They have created a most fitting ofrenda box in his honor, one that will become part of the larger community of offerings.  The photo above shows the box in progress. Jarie says it is not quite done, but it will be done very soon.

img_1845This is a picture of children’s hands making lines on cardboard in honor of Georg. Jarie said, “The students loved making Georg-like marks.”

Inside the box, you will see a brick. Jarie related the story to me that when the box became a bit unbalanced, one boy suggested weighting it with a brick. Jarie flashed on the fact that Georg had once given her family a brick on New Year’s Day. This was one of his annual rituals, the delivery of bricks to family and friends for good luck in the new year. I’m not sure if this was some rite from his ancestral home, Greece, or some Aquarian tradition, or just a “Georg-thing.” Whatever. The brick has been temporarily removed from Jarie’s backyard and added to the ofrenda. It looks at home there.

I was also very touched to hear that a girl in the class who is Greek is going to ask her mom to provide some Greek cookies, so that when the ofrenda is installed, it will include something sweet and Greek and buttery, melomacarona (honey cookies).  These will be an edible offering to those who have passed on.  Georg would love that.  I am so tempted to go home to Michigan to see the ofrenda when it is installed. I am not sure I can get there, given everything else going on in life at this moment.  But, knowing that the children are working together to make something beautiful in his honor gives me great hope.

Today may be the day that is the anniversary of Georg’s death, but one of his favorite Greek words was “Zoe” which means “life,” or as he always translated it, “new life.” Thank you, students of Stage IV at The Roeper School, for honoring Georg Vihos and giving him “Zoe.” Wherever he is today, he is smiling on us all.

 

An ofrenda (Spanish: “offering“) is a collection of objects placed on a ritual altar during the annual and traditionally Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebration. An ofrenda, which may be quite large and elaborate, is usually created for an individual person who has died. In honor of the 75th Anniversary of The Roeper School, classes, groups, and individuals are coming together to create an ofrenda to celebrate the lives of the people who contributed significantly to the story of the school. Boxes are being created to commemorate each person and will be placed together to create a traditional Ofrenda in the Bretzlaff Commons on the Bloomfiled Hills campus. This will be on view the last week of October with a community reception on the evening of November 1st.