Woman Rambles Through Time

For my 59th birthday last September, I traveled to Italy to do research for the historical novel I am writing about a woman artist of the Renaissance, Sofonisba Anguissola. My journey began in Amsterdam because I had planned to see a show there called Van Gogh Dreams. This title matched the name of a poetry anthology I had put together in 2018 with one of my father’s collages on the cover. But silly me! I had mistaken the closing date of the show and missed seeing it by four days. Thankfully, the Van Gogh Museum had plenty of  other delights to offer. And, it was the show that put the idea in my head in the first place to get myself across the ocean. I think that Vincent and my father were in cahoots to get me to Italy to focus on this novel. In the end, it all turned out well.

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I began in Sofi’s birthplace, Cremona, a picturesque town in northern Italy that felt to me like a medieval version of the place I live now, Sheboygan, WI. I sped through all the Italian cities in which Sofonisba worked including Milan, Rome, (where she studied with Michelangelo for a year and a half in her early twenties. Can you image?) Genoa, and Palermo. That last stop, on the island of Sicily, is where Sofonisba died at age 93. I found her tomb in the Church of San Giorgio dei Genovesi and I just sat there in the stifling September heat and cried. I couldn’t believe I had brought myself all the way to her resting place. And Palermo blew my mind. I had no idea there was a strong Arab influence there, incredible puppet artistry, and cactus. Did you know there is cactus in Italy?

The one place Sofi had lived that I did not visit was Madrid, where she spent nearly 20 years in the middle of her life, painting at the Spanish court and befriending the young queen, Isabel (born Elisabeth de Valois). That will require another trip entirely, perhaps at some future time. I was in Madrid once about 30 years ago, (30 years? That is insane to think that I have lived long enough to have memories that are so old) on my way to Portugal. I spent two days wandering around the Prado, in a jet-lagged daze. I remember Las Meninas by Velazquez. I remember the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Like large parts of my life, the rest is a blur.

But I digress. I need to complete this book without a return trip to Spain. I have more than enough material spanning 93 years of her life. Sofonisba was a woman ahead of her time, a woman outside of time. And in Latin, her family name, Anguissola means, “the lone snake.” I think that is what she was. Someone who was moving about on her own, who occasionally shed her skin (metaphorically speaking), and who slipped in and out of many situations over time. I have been thinking about her life for over twenty years and now I am coming to the end of this first journey. Soon the book will be done and then we’ll see what happens next.

You know, today is Georg’s birthday. He would have been 83 today. Sofonisba outlived him by seventeen years, 400 years ago. Wow. That is a long time no matter how you measure it. I guess I just had to ramble a bit through time today and write. Happy birthday, Dad. I have other images from the trip I want to share. Other stories  I want to tell. Stay tuned, for more rambles are coming.

The Year of Clear Vision

IMG_6334Here we are a month into 2020. This is a big year. In this year, I will turn 60, which is a little hard to fathom, because my grandmothers are 60, not me. Let me try that again. My grandmothers are both long gone. If they were alive, they would both be over 100. But, in my mind, they will always be 60. That is a grandma age, not a Lisa age. Ha! Think again, little child.

This is an election year. Let us pray that we get our country back from the narcissists and  the oligarchs and the idiots. We can do this. Let us do the work that needs to be done so that everyone has a living wage, affordable health care, and a roof over their heads.

Let’s make it be that children feel safe in their schools. Let’s wake up and protect our Mother Earth. She needs us! Like the wall art in Palermo, Sicily says,  Basta Plastica in Mare (Enough Plastic in the Sea.)

2020. This is going to be the year of clear, sharp vision and also coming full circle, back around to the things we were always meant to do. For me, this has to do with my writing. I think there are good things in store, not just for poet-Lisa, but story-writer-Lisa, and blogger-Lisa, and essayist-Lisa I’m not saying it’s ALL going to happen all at once, I’m saying I am suddenly very aware that I have limited time on this planet and I need to get everything done that I came here to do. I’m starting now.

I wish for you that whatever you have been dreaming of for years will come to pass, that you will make a pledge to yourself to get things done, and to be your very best self. The time is now. It’s 2020! Clear vision. Full circle. Go!

The Story of the Letter

Earlier this fall, I learned about an exhibition coming up at the Van Gogh Museum in the summer of 2020 called Jouw Mooiste Brief, or Your Most Beautiful Letter. The organizers plan to celebrate the slowing dying art of the handwritten letter, honoring the many letters that Van Gogh wrote to this brother, Theo. Their call for letters read as follows:

 VanGogh’s letters are world-famous. He wrote about love, inspiration and brotherhood. We would now like to put a letter you cherish on display at the Van Gogh Museum. Have you received a special letter that touched your heart, made you angry or made you laugh out loud?

As soon as I read this, I knew exactly the letter I would send. It was a letter that my dad had written to me in 1994 on the eve of my going to Stanford University Art Museum for a job interview (a job I was eventually offered but ended up not accepting. Long story). The letter reads as follows:

Dear Lisa,

The very best Light for your adventure going to Stanford. Remember if it is Right, it will come to you Right. Don’t be afraid you will be all good. And I love you! I am taking care of myself and I like my life very much!  It may seem strange from the outside yet I am perfectly happy!  

Here are some things for you to read on the plane. May God Bless You always in your life and on your way. 

Love you,
Dad

What made the letter so memorable was not the first receipt of it back in 1994. It was that on the night Georg died, September 26, 2013, I went into my closet to look for his will. I pulled out a box and my eye was drawn to a blue-colored file folder. I opened the folder and right there in front of me was Georg’s handwriting, and this letter. Keep in mind, the man had JUST DIED a couple hours earlier. The portion of the letter that begins “I am taking care of myself…” took my breath away. Still does. His blessing at the end is with me every day.

The organizers at the Van Gogh museum asked us not only to send a photo of the letter, but also the reason why it was meaningful. I am honored and excited that they will include this letter in their show. Georg loved Van Gogh and I think he must be happy to know that his words will be on display in the museum.

And, because I had shared the call for letters on Facebook, I learned yesterday that one of oldest and dearest friends from grade school, Galia Peled, also had her letter accepted. She told me that it was my dad who inspired her to read Dear Theo back in high school. Galia grew up in Bloomfield Hills, MI, and has lived her entire adult life in Israel. I asked her who her letter was from and she wrote:

It was a letter my husband sent me shortly after the outbreak of the first Lebanese war where he was fighting on the Syrian front, and I was pregnant with our first daughter.

Clearly, Jouw Mooiste Brief is going to be an incredibly diverse and thoughtful exhibition. I hope I will be able to return to Amsterdam to see it for myself.

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Your 82nd Birthday

dad in his art
You in your art.

Good morning, Dad!

Happy 82nd birthday!! I really wish I could call you today and tell you about all the cool things going on in my life right now. I’m working at the Arts Center again, not in Education any more, but as a grant writer. If you knew that, you would be asking me to help write a grant for you. I would do it!

I’ve had all sorts of good stuff happening with poetry. The Van Gogh Dreams anthology is out in the world, with one of your works of art on the cover. We’ll be doing a reading from the book on March 19 at Mead Library in Sheboygan, and then a second reading in Milwaukee at Boswell Book Company on March 30. Did you know that is Van Gogh’s birthday? Oh man, if you were still here, I know you’d try really hard to come to the readings. I will have to make due with you being there in spirit. I know you will be.

On top of that cool accomplishment–which by the way, took 3 years from start to finish to make happen–I am proud to say that a new anthology, From Everywhere a Little: A Migration Anthology, is also just about to come out. Thanks to the amazing energy and publishing know-how of my friend, Dawn Hogue, this book only took six months from idea to reality. How’s that for some fast-tracking? You would be so proud to see this book, yourself being one of the first “Dreamers,” born in 1937 to Anthony and Irene, Greek parents who were not yet officially citizens of this country when they had you. You know what it means to be from a different place and to learn to speak English in kindergarten. Lest you think I am only doing anthologies, rest assured I’m also doing a lot of my own writing too. The ground is fertile. Good things are going to happen!

I’ll tell you one thing, Dad, you were glad to get out of here before all the craziness really set in, as far as our government. Our country is being run by a madman. You would have found this extremely upsetting. I know you would have been very excited about new people in government like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib (who went to Wayne State! Maybe she saw your art there!) I’m sure you would have made some good art about all this. I am doing my best to carry on in your footsteps.

I know I keep saying that I’m going to turn this blog into something that is not just about you. But somehow, I am only inspired to write here when there is something about you I want to honor, like the day you arrived on the planet, or the day you left for good. Well, I will ponder all this and more in the days to come. I will listen to you in my heart, because I am pretty sure you are still in the game with me, still inspiring me to be my best self, whether I’m writing poetry, cooking, helping family and friends with projects, or just plain dreaming. You are always right next to me.

Thank you for all that and more.
Your loving daughter,
Lisa

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You looking at your art.

Lesson from the Duck

I was at the edge of Lake Michigan the other morning, watching the ducks bobbing and diving in the waves. Here is what I learned from them. Meanwhile, Happy New Year everyone! May patience, insight, and joy allow for smooth bobbing and diving in 2019.

Lesson from the Duck

I watch from the shore
as you sit in cold water
wait
rise
fall
repeat
I sense you intuit what is coming.

Gentle wave?
Bob with it.

White cap approaching?
Do what your name says, duck
and the turmoil
flows over you.

For a second or two
you are lost
beneath the frothy wave.

Then you emerge,
turn sideways, shake it off.
New perspective?

You are ready
and in your patient dance,
always alert
for the next wave
coming.

ducks

 

 

Five Years

fullsizerender-7I can’t let today pass without mentioning that it is the fifth anniversary of Georg’s passing. Dad died just after midnight on September 26, 2013. I can’t believe that five years have gone by and so many things have happened to me. I lost a job, I was a substitute teacher for a little while, I published two poetry chapbooks, I went to Malawi three times and began a project to build a reading garden for children (still in progress), I got my health insurance through the marketplace for a while, I started two new jobs (one I still have), my son started college, I bought a house, and my mom and I have become housemates. After the 2016 election, the world began to turn upside down and I’m working to make sense of it all. Five years.

But that’s all about me. That’s not Georg. My sister and I never did manage to get his estate under control, and now we are dissolving the estate and going back to square one. As though, when Dad passed, we had not tried to build an empire of all the works of art that he left behind. There were too many debts against him, and we are still responsible for that. Maybe the Empire of Georg will come some other way. I don’t know what that is. I might need to let all that go. Or, I could try harder. Make him a Wikipedia page. Try to get him a gallery show. Try to sell some art. Really? Is that really my job? Maybe.

What would Georg say if he were here? He would tell me to breath and relax, go easy on myself. He would be proud and pleased. He would be in his studio, making art. He would remind me to never give up and always listen to the voice inside me, urging me to try new things, learn new things. We can’t stop trying to make a difference in this world, even when we know that the real change may not come until after we are long gone. And by then, we’ll be somewhere else, but our good energy will remain. Like Georg.

If Georg were here today, he would fry me some onions. That’s what he would do. He would remind me to stay present and to keep doing what I am doing. He would remind me to be kind to others and also to myself. Yup. Thank you, Dad.

Love you, miss you,
Lisa

From Relentless Griever to Relentless Thinker

A few weeks ago, my friends, the Relentless Thinkers of “the idea works” put out a call on Facebook, asking people to create a list of five inspiring mentors. I did not realize it was a contest. But, I love when people ask me to share my thoughts. So I created my list. Five strong women: Pauli Murray, Dolores Huerta, Malala Yousafzai, Wangari Maathai, and Jane Goodall. These are women who didn’t (and still don’t) give up. I learned today I “won!” I will get a Relentless Thinkers business card of my very own and it will have my name listed with the five women who inspire me. I feel like I just graduated to a new plane of existence. I am beyond ecstatic.

Meanwhile, I have been wanting for the longest time to revive this blog. I do believe that recent events indicate that Georg is telling me it would be okay if I start to address matters other than him. My late father is ready for me to wear the mantle of a Relentless Thinker, as opposed to a Relentless Griever. I know this because as I was leaving work today, right on my path to the parking lot was this seagull feather. I know for a fact it was sent by Georg. He always does that when he wants to get my attention. It is because of the feather that I am sitting at my dining room table right now, crafting this blog post.

I need advice. I want to create a website that will promote my poetry books, poetry projects, poetry activism, and the Malawi reading garden project. Does anyone have experience making websites in WordPress? How easy is it? I would like to stick with WordPress and re-energize my blog to be coupled with a home page that provides links so people can buy books or learn about my various projects, things like 100 Thousand Poets for Change, Poetic Pairings, the Lilongwe Reading Garden Project, and more.

Will making a website in WordPress be easy to do? They have a lot of tutorials. Have any of you ever used them? I am eager to do this because I have a new book coming out later this year called Van Gogh Dreams (HenschelHaus Publishing). It is an anthology I compiled of poems by 31 poets about the life and art of Vincent van Gogh. It is also an homage to my dad, and will have one of his Van Gogh-related drawings on the cover. Proceeds from book sales will go to the Malawi project. I have other merch to sell and I will tell you all about it in a future blog post. Yes, I have a lot to tell you.

This evening, I may be a relentless thinker spinning around in an ecstatic tornado of ideas and father-memories and feathers, so I need to focus. Help me land with some solid ideas about creating a website. WordPress? Wix? Weebly? Others? Go!

 

 

The Fourth Anniversary

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Georg Vihos, Luminous Feather, c. 2004, 12″ x 12″, oil on masonite

Four years ago today, just after midnight in the wee hours, Georg died. My dad. Artist, teacher, chef, friend. I know I have been harping on him off and on for the last four years now, and I’ve also tried to make this blog talk about different things. But he was the impetus for starting this blog at all. His death started something new in me. Let me ponder that for a moment.

Anyway, even though it has been four years, my sister and I still haven’t settled his estate. This is huge, and I ask everyone out there who is reading this, before you die, please settle your affairs so your offspring don’t have to do it.

Even though it has been four years, I will feel the loss of him every day. I suppose there is a more positive way to say this. Every day, I still feel his presence. With every burst of swallows from a corn field, every seagull call, every lone feather appearing unexpectedly on the sidewalk, Georg is there.

Sometimes, when I’m driving and lost in thought, a bird will fly right past my windshield, startling me back to the present. I always take this as a sign from Georg. Wake up, Lisa! Keep your mind on the road! But, along with that, he is telling me that whatever I was just ruminating about is going to be okay. He is telling me, Trust your instincts. Yup. That is what he is telling me.

So, Dad. Thank you. Again. I know you had to move on. And, I am learning each day that you are actually still here. Your wisdom and knowledge will always stay with me, a bird on the wing.

 

 

Who Is Not an Immigrant?

Today, Donald Trump has continued to move lower than low by rescinding DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This program allowed the children of undocumented immigrants who came here as small children some modicum of protection and ability to live life here in America. No one protected under DACA is a felon. No one is taking a job someone else could have. These are 800,000 young people who go to elementary school and high school, go on to college, work at jobs, pay taxes, and abide the laws of this land.

These young people came here with their parents and they have worked hard to contribute to this place called America. I can’t see how this is any different when in a different time and place, other immigrants came here from Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, or elsewhere. What about the pilgrims? You remember them? Immigrants. Unless you are Native American, you have descended from immigrants. This is the very diversity that makes America the culturally rich and amazing place that it is.

Today is my birthday and it is very hard to celebrate when I see what is happening in my country, a country created by the sweat and blood of so many people who came before me, people I will never know. I will not accept this cruel and heartless act on the part of the current administration.

I am asking every friend to call your state senators and congress people today and every day in the time to come, as well as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and tell them that they MUST sit down and work across the aisle with each other to bring the Dream Act into being. This bill was first introduced in the Senate by Dick Durbin (D) and Orrin Hatch (R) on August, 1, 2001. The time is now. No more waiting. We cannot let down our Dreamers and we should be helping them on the path to citizenship, not deportation. These Dreamers? They are us, me and you. We must stand with them and see this through.

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March and rally to protect DACA, Sheboygan City Hall, September 4, 2017. Photo: Paula Kletzien

 

 

 

This post is in honor of my mother and father, first generation Americans. My mother’s parents came from Italy, and my father’s came here from Greece, both in the early 20th century. My father did not speak English until he went to kindergarten in about 1942.

 

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.