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.

A New Sense of Order

eastern_bluebird_11My laptop opened up today with a photograph of a sweet little blue bird sitting on a branch. Because my father loved blue birds, I take it to mean that Georg was sending me a message of support and encouragement today. This awareness of his never-ceasing presence in my life inspired me to come back to this blog where I haven’t visited for quite a while.

The last time I wrote was in April, remarking on the “higgledy-piggledy” world referred to by the baker who happened to be Muslim and British and who got the honor of making a cake for Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday. Since then, it seems that the world has gotten more “higgled” and more “piggled” in ways that are significantly more dire and fraught with danger than the unexpected baking of queen’s birthday cakes.

I am trying to find the fine line between keeping the media buzz at bay (as dismaying at it is each day) and doing my part to stay informed so that I can help move the world forwards, not backwards. I am at times greatly fearful of what might happen to our country and to our world should a certain man become president. Believe me, I am doing everything in my limited power to ensure that he does not win. I am, indeed, with Hillary.

Meanwhile, I have recently returned from Malawi, a small, developing country in southeast Africa. As you know, I became good friends over the last two years with a group of graduate students who had come to Lakeland for their M.Ed degrees, specializing in early grade reading instruction. It was thanks to them that I got the idea that Malawi might benefit from a children’s reading garden, similar to the place here in Sheboygan that my Malawian friends fell in love with, Bookworm Gardens.

We are still in the early stages of settling on a design, picking the folktales and other stories to be featured, finding a builder to build it and artists and gardeners and teachers to make it both beautiful and educational. This effort would be challenging enough to do close to home. Building it far away from where I live is even harder. But, there are many friends on the ground over there who are eager to see this garden happen. I know it will come to pass, all in good time, if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Despite higgles and piggles that turn up every day, in every endeavor, I remain alert for the shared order of all things.

The Queen’s Cake

It is Thursday, the day Georg died. It is raining and I have so many different things to do, I don’t know where to begin. Instead of getting an early start on my work this morning, I am thinking about Monday’s blog post, which got very few hits, so I am pondering what I might have said wrong (or done wrong in posting.) This leads me to a personal certainty: I always doubt myself.

This is not a productive way to be, but there you have it. Georg would have understood this self-doubt, though he would not have approved of it. He would have wanted me to see myself differently, though I know he struggled too. I look at all he did, and I look at what happened. He died. Gone. End of discussion. Now what? Who’s job is it to make sure that everything he did in life becomes recognized? Why do we want the things we make, do, or say to be recognized? To what end?

NadiyaI caught an NPR interview this morning with Nadiya Hussain, the British woman born in Bangladesh who recently won the Great British Bake Off and was invited to create Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday cake. Nadiya will present the cake to the Queen later on today. Nadiya’s attitude toward the whole thing was so upbeat and lovely, so not over-thinking it. The interviewer was a bit surprised to hear that the baker had not made any test cakes, had not rehearsed what she was going to say to the Queen. For me, it was a lesson in being in the moment. Nadiya was excited and nervous, but I detected no hint of self-doubt, nor of self-aggrandizement. She exhibited all at once both humility and clear-headedness about the task at hand: baking a cake for a queen.

Nadiya is Muslim and wears a hijab. The interviewer wanted to know what insights Nadiya has about being a woman who wears a hijab delivering a beautiful and hopefully utterly delicious cake to the Queen of England. Nadiya said (and I am paraphrasing from memory here), “well I don’t want anyone to look at me and write me off, saying ‘oh, she’s just a Muslim.’ I mean, I am that, but I am also so much more than that.” Then, she said, “It is all a bit higgledy-piggledy, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is. All a bit higgledy-piggledy for sure. And now, I better go back to work. I will remember all this and Nadiya’s example of staying humble, certain, and present-in-the-moment. No rehearsing, just being. I will let Nadiya’s Queen’s 90th birthday cake be an example, for me, always, that there is unexpected goodness awaiting me at every corner.

queen

 

Death, Spring, Prayer, and Taxes

BenjaminAs Benjamin Franklin so aptly put it, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” On the Brainy Quotes page where his adage appears, another writer (Ruth Ann Minner, former governor of Delaware) suggested that in addition to this, we ought to add “trash.” That makes sense to me. Trash is pretty much a certainty of living life. In an effort to stem the tide of inevitable trash, I am working hard in 2016 to be much more thoughtful about recycling. For one thing, I have started to use cloth bags at the grocery store. (Except four times out of five, I forget to take them into the store with me. Better work on that.)

My question: where on earth do we put all the trash that we generate every day, besides the curb? Maybe someone has started to jettison it into outer space? It is a big universe out there, but is it big enough for all our crap?

Then there are those who say that the only certain thing is uncertainty. Again, I would have to agree. Suddenly, there are quite a few things that are certain: death, taxes, trash, crap, and uncertainty. What else?

I suppose I am certain that the sun will rise each day and certain that my heart will keep beating all through the night even when I am sleeping. A corollary to this certainty is that I will continue to breathe, without ever thinking much about it. Sidebar: When my son was five years old, he went through a phase where he was afraid to go to sleep at night because he was worried he would not keep breathing. I introduced a recitation together of The Lord’s Prayer before bed. I don’t know why, exactly, but this seemed to help him.

close-up of a boy praying

Perhaps we can add a child’s need to pray to the list of things that are certain. How about grown-ups? What do we need when it comes to prayer? I’m certain there are as many different answers to that question as there are people on the planet.

In this time of complete political carnival upheaval, this campaign-season-like-no-campaign-season-we-have-ever-seen-in-the-annals-of-time, is anything certain? Some say they are certain that there is no way Bernie can be the nominee. To that I say, “do not underestimate the power of the people.”

One last certain thing. Spring will always come. It may be slow to get here, especially in Wisconsin. This April has been the shepherd of the weirdest spring ever. One day it is warm, the next day it snows three inches. Then, the sun shines. Then it is extremely cold. But, surely, this can’t go on forever. Right?

Finally today, April 18, 2016, several certainties have coalesced. It is Monday, so it is trash day in Sheboygan. It is also tax day everywhere. The IRS gave us a reprieve, I guess, since the 15th fell on a Friday. Are they that thoughtful, the IRS? Apparently.  It is also so spring-like out there today that I can’t possibly image it snowing again before next December. At least, that is what I will pray for.

As for death, it never goes away, ever. Of that, I am quite certain.

 

 

Sensei Martha

Today is Georg’s birthday. He would have been 79. It is also the birthday of one of his favorite writers, Nikos Kakantzakis, who said, “What a strange machine man is! You fill him with bread, wine, fish, and radishes, and out comes sighs, laughter, and dreams.” Here is a little story about the sighs,dreams, and laughter of dogs, for you today, Dad. Happy birthday…

IMG_2386I did not grow up in a dog family, but we tried to have a dog when I was 11. Georg named him Pollo, after the Greek god, Apollo. We couldn’t train him and he barked all night. We gave him to a dog family. It made me sad to know we had failed at “dog,” but I was secretly relieved that he would get to spend his days with people who understood his language.

I am still not a dog person, but I do love one particular dog whose name is Martha. Martha came into our lives ten years ago. We got her at the Ozaukee Humane Society. She was a rescue dog from Indiana.  At first, she refused to go into our basement and cowered when trucks passed by on the street. Eventually, she overcame these fears. On her record, her name was listed as “Sensei,” which as you may know means “teacher.” It translates literally as “person born before another.” Martha is certainly that.

She has been quite a teacher for me. She has not completely taught me how not to be afraid of all dogs, but she has taught me not to be afraid of her. I have learned to communicate with her, walk her, feed her.  I did not learn how to bathe her or how to open her mouth and get pills down her throat when needed, but still. Those are Masters-level dog jobs, and I have left those to her dad, her main care giver.

Martha has taught me how important it is to sit on the couch sometimes and do nothing. She has taught me that when I am outside, it is important to breathe deeply and survey not only the ground, but also the air. Mostly, she has taught me that love does not come in words. It comes in subtle body language and in actions. She lives at her dad’s house, but I have walked her most every weekday morning since the divorce. Like her human boy counterpart, Owen, she has taught us to stay a family.

These last two weeks have been difficult as she is suddenly fading. She is 12 now, so theoretically, it could be time to go. The vet said her red blood cells are not functioning properly. She is getting a daily dose of steroids in cooked hamburger meat that Mike feeds her. The morning report from him today is that she is actually moving around, unlike yesterday when she lay all day on the couch like a spent rag. This morning, she ate, peed, and drank more water. We have an appointment at the vet at 1:00, and I hope we aren’t going to be putting Martha down, but I just don’t know.

My instructions are to try to get her to walk to the end of the block to move her bowels.  I will go over in a little while and do this. I will bring a book and sit with her on the couch and just be her student for a little while longer.

Who is Driving this Adventure?

I had a dream early this morning, the themes of which are casting a pall over the beginning of my new day. In one part of the dream, I was stepping forward to take responsibility for a typo in a Powerpoint presentation that caused my supervisor great upset. He was ready to blame it on a young man who was working as an intern under my watch. I had to say, “no, it was my fault. I saw the typo and I let it slide. Blame me.”

At that point, I don’t know what happened next. The dream melded into the depths of consciousness and when it arose out again, I was with my family as we were in the mid-1970s. My mom, my dad, my sister, and me. There were also four other people with us whom I cannot identify except to say that they were also (apparently) family members of some extended nature. One was a small girl of about six years old.  We were preparing to go on a car trip and six people loaded into the first car, leaving my sister and I outside the vehicle. I said, “hey, you guys, there is nowhere for me and Illia to sit.”

My dad was in the driver’s seat. He said, “you girls go ahead and take the other car. We’ll meet you there.” Now, in the mid-1970s, I was only just barely old enough to drive. But I knew what I had to do. Go find “the other car” and drive it. The last image of the dream was looking back at my dad in the car. He looked confident that I could handle what was coming. I had my hands on my sister’s shoulders. We would go on our own.

After I woke up and had some coffee this morning, I sat on my couch and cried. I hesitated to write this post, because I notice that when I am compelled to post here, it is either to complain, worry, or grieve. I fear that this could get a bit tiresome for you, dear reader.

I am aware that I spent one part of my day yesterday trying to make arrangements for things having to do with the sale of Georg’s art work so that we can finally complete the probate process and free the estate of the debts it owes. This has proven to be a very complex endeavor. The rest of the day, I reviewed my stalled novel. I am quite sure there are important, universal dilemmas I am meant to talk about through the lives of my characters. I just don’t know how to do that yet.

I suppose the only way to do it (on all fronts: the novel and the estate) is to simply keep trying. As my dream indicated to me, if I make a mistake, I can own up to it. I can take responsibility for the things in my life. Meanwhile, Georg might be in a different car now, but he is still the driver of his own adventure, as I am of mine. And, he is watching. At least, that is how it feels to me.

onion close

Let the Watershed Begin

IMG_1610Here it is, the eve of New Year’s Eve, December 30, 2015. I just sat here and read back through all the posts of the past year. Fascinating stuff. I am stunned that I neglected to focus on two wonderful things that happened this year: 1) my first place award in the Wisconsin People and Ideas Poetry Contest, for my poem, “Lesson at the Check Point,” and 2) my trip to Salerno, Italy for 100 Thousand Poets for Change. Let me not forget either of those measurables. Those are successes that need to be kept at the forefront of my consciousness, even if I am not always clear where my writing is leading me next.

So, if I wasn’t highlighting my successes on the blog, what the heck was I doing? While the year was unfolding, I was mainly obsessing about having had my job eliminated. At the time, I tried to keep it light by focusing on notions like exploration, a positive attitude, and the whole “action follows thought” mode of operation. All that running up the hill stuff and a door closes, a window opens, yada, yada. But, honestly, looking back on it, what I was experiencing for the last seven months was nothing but sheer terror.

north pointThe high level of fear has subsided, as I have begun working part-time for a great organization called the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership. I have wonderful co-workers and we share an important mission: developing a “water ethic” and a mindset of stewardship of the lake and the land. LNRP is an umbrella group that serves many smaller “friend groups” and other network partners who all share one goal: the protection of Lake Michigan and the watersheds of northeastern Wisconsin that flow into her. (Why do I think of the lake as a female? Note to self: write an upcoming blog post on why you think the lake is female. Check.)

Like I said, the terror has subsided a bit, but not completely. Despite my excellent new job that is perfectly suited to my skills and sensibilities, my financial situation is still rocky. I have had some scary moments, especially during the Christmas season. It is amazing how quickly a person can burn through money. This is not a problem when the inflow is regular. But, when the inflow has vagaries, when the inflow has not yet been regularized, well, that kind of variety can send a person like me down a chute of despair.

sheboygan riverTonight, on the eve of the eve of the new year, I say, “despair be GONE!” It is time to get myself flowing, like the waters that come out of the earth and head down to the lake. This is my watershed moment. This is the year when an important change is going to happen that will redirect the course of my personal history. Just wait and see.

If Georg was here (and he is, somewhere, but in a form that I don’t always recognize ), he would raise his glass. He would say, Cheers, my dear! Let the watershed begin!

 

 

Spirit of Giving

Well, it is Thursday. As those you of you know who have been reading this blog for while, Georg passed away on a Thursday.

This particular Thursday, however, is Thanksgiving.  If there is any Thursday on which to think of my father, this would be the day. He loved to cook, he loved to eat. He was truly an artist in the kitchen. Most of all, he loved to share his food creations with other people. Everything I know about the joy of cooking, I learned not from a book, but from him.

My mom, Rosanne, my dad, Georg. Both of them taught me, each in their own way, how to be present for the people you love. So, today, I wish for everyone wherever you are, and whoever you are with, to call up your own inner “Georg and Rosanne.” By this, I mean, your spirit of generosity, your spirit of giving. The world is full of people who need your gifts. So, don’t hold back.

I’ve started the stuffing and the corn pudding. The turkey is only a 10 pounder, so that will go in later. My mom and sister Illia worked on the sweet potato casserole last night. Illia will also be covering the green beans, the mashed potatoes, the gravy, and a new addition, cauliflower soup.

Georg is smiling. I’m quite sure that wherever his spirit went, he is making a feast for his newly found friends in another realm. At the same time, he is right over our shoulders, enjoying the smell of these frying onions.

Illia,me, and dad on Thanksgiving at my mom's some year, unknown, being joyful with a spinach pie fresh out of the oven.
Illia, me, and dad on Thanksgiving at my mom’s many years ago with a spinach pie, fresh out of the oven. The spirit of giving in the flesh.

Tea Bag Paintings

In yesterday’s post, I referred to these lovely little paintings on tea bags in the sun room of my writing house in Mineral Point. The tea bag paintings are by a local artist named Sandra Peterson. Georg would have loved these. I know I do.

IMG_2293

Report from the Driftless

IMG_2266I am writing from 219 Washington Street, Mineral Point, Wisconsin. I am staying in the most lovely, cozy, inspiring place, a yellow house, well-suited to the task of writing. Mineral Point is located in what is known as the driftless area. Doesn’t that just sound so ruggedly dreamy? What it really means is that this region of southwestern Wisconsin (and some pieces of Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois) all escaped glaciation in the last glacial period.

In case you don’t know, glaciers, when they retreat, are notorious for leaving behind silt, clay, sand, gravel, and boulders. All this junk is collectively known as drift. What we have here is no drift, or in other words, driftless. There may be no drift out here, but there are hills. Lots and lots of them. In fact, the driftless area is characterized by deeply carved river valleys. And wherever there are valleys, hills seem to be not far behind.

What all this amounts to for the average Joe person like me is delight in finding that the town is built on one steep hill after another. A girl can get a really good workout just walking into town in the morning to see what’s what.

There is more to the hills than aerobics, however. In the 1830s and 40s, these hills were probed for their large and easily accessible amounts of lead and zinc. Hence the name, “Mineral” Point. This was a booming mining town up until 1849, when everyone turned their sights to California in search of gold.

IMG_2287 (1)But, before that happened, loads of Cornish miners came here. In a hiking trail pamphlet I picked up at Merry Christmas Mine Hill, the miners from Cornwall are described as “some of the best hard-rock miners in the world, [who] arrived with knowledge accumulated through centuries of experience at deep shaft mining in their homeland.” Wow. Don’t you wonder how they knew to come here? Remember, this was way before text messaging and telephones. I guess someone wrote someone a letter and the rest was history.

In fact, there is a sign in the town alerting us to the fact that Mineral Point is the place most like Cornwall in all the world, outside of Cornwall. I don’t know Cornwall, but apparently, I do now. I totally approve. The Cornish pasty I got from Red Rooster Café was delicious. They also make something called figgyhobbin (sweet pastry with raisins). Haven’t tried that yet. But I will.

The house I am staying in is very comfortable and full of lovely creations made by its owner, Lisa Hay, who also owns a candy shop downtown called High Street Sweets. Lisa paints things and displays them throughout the house: chairs, vases, picture frames, toilet plungers, tea bags. Yes. Tea bags. There is a small display of teabag paintings in the sun room upstairs. Each bag has a distinctly beautiful miniature image of a bird painted on it. Brilliant.

IMG_2292This residency was awarded to me by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters for having won the Wisconsin People and Ideas poetry contest this summer. I want to thank the Academy for this wonderful gift. I have never won first place in anything (before this.) Don’t worry, though. I may be wandering the driftless, writing poetry, climbing hills, and craving figgyhobbin, but I won’t let any of it go to my head.