Uncategorized

Liga

Liga was my mother’s godfather. Whenever he arrived at our house, he was dressed in a suit coat. He looked like a retired businessman. I remember his presence, quiet, and he seemed kind. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with Uncle Liga. When he couldn’t work any more, he rode the Milwaukee buses in his suit – always a hat, with a top coat in the winter. In his final years, he lived in an old, narrow apartment close to downtown. The place was dark, made darker by the sounds of traffic on the busy street it faced.

Liga died in the bathtub of that old apartment. At that time, after Dad had retired, my mother and father went to check on him every few days. When he didn’t answer the ring to his doorbell, the apartment manager unlocked the door of his place. My father found Liga, dead. Later, Dad said he couldn’t sleep for several days after he found LIga. “I loved Liga,” Dad said.

Liga worked in the foundry with the other men who arrived from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century. They left before the Revolution of 1917, a revolution that brought a new life, but not the life they had hoped and dreamed for their land. When I knew him, he was alone. I have a picture of him, from the pictures my mother saved and gave to me. It looks to have been taken in the “old country.” Liga, a young man – handsome, with thick, black, wavy hair – sits in a chair, dressed in a top coat and tie, looking sternly into the distance. A young woman, also formally dressed, stands behind him, her hand on his shoulder. What happened to her? What happened to him? Where did those beautiful young people go? In my mind, Liga was always an old man. And when I knew Liga, he was always alone.

Many Ukrainians fled Ukraine for work and food and an education for their children. They arrived in the New World, and settled in the industrial cities of the Midwest, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee. Others settled in Canada. They brought with them their hard work, their ability to live with very little – they were descendants of freed serfs – freed to remain landless, illiterate, and poor, apparently – and a need to drink. Oddly, I don’t associate Liga with drinking.

Most holidays, Liga joined us at the holiday table and in the living room afterward. He was there when we enjoyed the Christmas tree lights, and he was there when we tapped together the ends of colored, painted eggs at Easter, to see whose would crack first. The one whose egg didn’t crack was the winner!

Every few months, Liga arrived at the front door of our flat, where he rang the bell and waited for one of us to run down the stairs to answer the door. In the summer, I would often go to open the door for Liga. He would greet me, shyly and gently. Then, he and Mom sat for an hour or two at the kitchen table. She read to him the latest letter from his family in Canada, which had been carefully carried in his pocket. Sometimes a photo – black and white, of a favorite niece – was included in the letter. Then, Liga told my mother, line by line, his answer to the letter. She translated his Ukrainian into English. When Mom addressed the envelope, Liga always handed her a couple of dollars from his pocket, to put into the envelope with the letter. A few dollars from a poor man, sent as love.

When I think of Uncle Liga, a place in my heart is warm.

nostalgia

War in Ukraine

Only a few weeks ago, the news was not filled with story after story of the War in Ukraine. Only a few weeks ago, we were focused on what the next surge of the COVID virus would bring, what it would mean to this pandemic that has affected the world. Only a few weeks ago, we all waited for the next report: what countries were open to travel? How would life be different after these two years of the global COVID pandemic? Although these were not easy questions, we did not know how quickly and completely the news, our attention, the attention of the world would shift to Ukraine. Like so many of you, I cry every day now.

My mother’s first language was Ukrainian. Mary was born in 1918 to Alex and Frances Markowski – Vlas Markov Srebny and Feodosia Machsuda Srebna – in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mary was the third living child of my grandparents, after her brother, John, and her brother, Michael. She was the second child to be born in the United States of America. After her would come Anne – Hannah – and Peter.

Like immigrants of all times and places, my grandfather and grandmother must have had their dreams, their hopes, for their new life in their new land. Or maybe it was my grandfather’s hope, and my grandmother, dependent on him, left her home and all she knew in the “Old Country” to come to a land she would not know as her own, as his spouse, without a dream of her own. They brought their first born – Ivan – and their memories of the land they knew, the people and customs of the land they knew, to this unknown place, where life would surely always be a struggle, as it is now, to the poor and the immigrants among us. Maybe my grandfather had a dream, a hope, some sort of light in himself that would surely come to shine in this new land. It did not. All of these thoughts now are speculation, because the poor and the uneducated among us are only numbers, so seldom is their story told.

The memory of my grandparents and how they came to be here is only memory, now. My grandfather died when I was one, and my grandmother, who only spoke Ukrainian in my memory, died when I was 19. Many times in the life I’ve crafted for myself, I’ve wondered about them. And I wonder who else now, in my generation, wonders about them, thinks about what their lives must have been like, what they held in them and with them as they came to this new place. Only questions arise, not many answers. As I think about my family in this country, I think that pieces of the story must exist somewhere, in someone. Who knows?

*

I’ve always had questions, I’ve always wondered, from the time I was young, about what lives my grandparents had. People who struggle to survive seldom leave deep marks on the path of their lives. Their children and their children’s children – and so on – are all that remain of them. I expect they had a dream, or a hope for this new place. I keep looking for that dream, that hope. I’ve been looking my whole life.

Alex and Frances Markowski, Johnny Markowski, about 1914

Were they content? Why leave their homeland, then? Why go to somewhere unknown, into an unknown future, with only hopes for something better, and nothing else? Whatever their dreams, they were not fulfilled. “Ukrainians have not done well in the United States,” I once heard a commentator say.

*

In my search for who they were – who I am – I have turned to DNA research. Several years ago, I connected online with a distant cousin who came from Ukraine, and who now lives in Canada. Through our connection, he had hoped to find a way for me to go to the place of my grandparents’ birth, their home. These days, instead, my cousin speaks daily to his family in Ukraine, helping them decide where to go for safety.

And this same story is being told for millions, millions of people, today.

Now, of course, another dream is lost. The dreams of millions in Ukraine have been smashed to death in just these past couple of weeks. As I write, people who could not think of leaving their home only a few days ago are leaving their homes, hoping to find safe passage to – to where? As I write, a war that started in the mind of one man is dismantling lives and livelihoods, forcing human beings to look for safety somewhere far from home. It’s an old story, older than the scriptures.

“Once I was happily content to be
As I was, where I was,
Close to the people who are close to me…”
– “Far From the Home I Love,” Fiddler on the Roof

Now, as the world watches, the Ukrainian people on the move again, people who were living their lives like the rest of us, just a few weeks ago. We are stunned as we watch, but our discomfort, our tears, our fears are only that. Today, we sit in our comfortable places, lamenting for these other human beings. Their history – their long history, has been full of violence, of turmoil, of poverty, all these things often at the hand of their leaders.

God save us all.

Uncategorized

How to come back to yourself…

 

img_0899      The present moment…

Everyone needs ways to return home, to oneself. For me, learning to come back to myself, to be present, has been a life long journey. Because it has not been an easy journey for me, I have had to learn and to re-learn, again and again, ways to return to myself.  That doesn’t make me good.  What it does make me is a resource for simple, practical ways to return to oneself.

Sometimes, we don’t want to return!  When we are feeling pain, or anger, or frustration, when our emotions seem to be overwhelming, it is difficult to make the choice to return to ourselves.  The deeper journey of life is not about ignoring or avoiding “negative” or “difficult” feelings.  The deeper journey, the journey to a full, complete life, includes the willingness to enter and to accept all feelings, including those that are uncomfortable, and even frightening.  Embracing, accepting those feelings is part of the journey of coming back to yourself.

How do you return to yourself?  One of the simplest, most powerful ways to return is to be present in the body.  For some of us, this is easier than others!  I pride myself on being a “city girl,” comfortable on the pavement, navigating between soaring buildings, enjoying the lights and the people I pass.  That source of pride is also a weakness for me.  I have had to learn, in later years, to return to myself, my body.

Take a few moments to sniff the air today.  See the colors around you.  Look at the sky.  Watch the movement of the soft wind in the trees.  What color are the trees, now, this moment?  Sit for a moment, and feel yourself sitting in the chair.  Know the pressure of your feet, in your shoes, on the floor.

I love to sit in the grass sometimes, and I am grateful for our luxurious plot of grass in the city.  On the earth, my senses seem to come back to life.  I smell and see and even hear the world in a more present way.  When I am present to my moments in the grass, I am present to the present moment.  And that is all there is.  The masters speak of this, again and again.  Our prayers, our meditations, our sitting, return us to this place – this place of presence, the present moment.

The present moment is the greatest gift, the greatest grounding of all.  When, for a minute or an hour or a day, you are present, you will discover this greatest gift.  You will want more and more of this, this presence, this being-at-one with yourself, in your body, whole, complete, in this moment.

You are deeper, you are more than your anxieties, your fears, for all those things that possess you and keep you trapped – trapped outside yourself.  You are here, now.  Join in the return.  Come back to yourself, now.

 

 

Uncategorized

Make of your life a practice –

IMG_0792  Practice seeing, seeing the first blossoms of spring

How can I live my life as a practice, a practice of whole-ness, a practice of connecting with the infinite, the Holy, the Universe?

There is only this: practice, practice, practice…

The sages of all traditions knew this.  the Mother knows this, the monks in their cells in the hidden corners of the earth know this.  It may be that the person in the next cubicle knows this.  And you know it, too.  There is only practice, from one moment to the next, from one day to the next.

What is your practice, today?  In my life, my practice has often changed.  For a time, I spent hours every day in my car, driving from small town to small town in rural Wisconsin.  Then, I began this practice, this practice that has become my life.  I talked to God.  I talked out loud to God, crying sometimes, laughing, sometimes, and sometimes shaking my fist at God.  And I began to observe my life in its unfolding, as if I was looking at my life from another perspective.

Sure, I have had to make the choices we all make.  I have had to decide whether or not to go on to school, where to live, what to do on Friday night, whether or not this person was my friend – or not.  All of the external choices have been the same.  On another level, though, I have discovered that life is a constant of only this:  practice.

Practice is only my own way of connecting the Divine, to the Holy that is in me and is in you.  I have not been limited by my practice; rather, my practice has broadened my life, my experience, and even my mind.  Through my practice, I have learned to question everything I have been taught is true or real.  There are no limits to my practice.  Like the sea, which rolls onto the beach and roils into the deepest depths, my limits are limit-less.  Through my practice, I have questioned my deepest beliefs, and I have discarded some, and still question others, continuing to wonder what is true, what holds to be true not only for me, but for all of humanity, and all of creation.

I have learned that the Holy can hold all this, all my faltering practices, all my failures, all my ignorance, all my less-than-loving self.

I have prayed, an ever-changing, evolving prayer.  I have meditated, and I still do, two times a day, most days.  I have walked my prayers.  I have talked to the grass and the trees, and to my cat.  I have cried.  I have laughed.   I have nodded into a sky that does not answer, and yet is shouting  to me.  I have sniffed the sweet, wet earth, and smelled the sweet fragrance of lilacs and rosemary and lavendar, riches.  I have visited holy places.  I have worshiped in unfamiliar places, and I have honored those whose practice I have been privileged to encounter, although theirs might not be my own.  I nod to their Holy One, who may seem different than my own, but is not.  I honor that Holy One, by whatever name.  I have visited dark places, and I have arrived into another morning, giving thanks for nothing in particular, but for it all.

I have not only “tried” many ways to stay connected to All; I have practiced many ways to stay connected.  Some of the ways I carry with me now, like a bag filled with spiritual practices instead of groceries.  I reach into the bag and take out the one I need, now.  In any day, I use my practices to stay connected to Something More, Something Whole, Something Holy – something that is in me, that is me, and that is greater than I am.

Through my practice I have learned this:  I do not have to be good.  I do not have to do things perfectly.  I do not have to work to be worthy.  I do not have to know what is right or correct in any or all situations.  I do not have to understand to accept.  I am complete, here and now, just as I am.  This is what I have learned, what I am learning.

When I remember, I can still feel my little girl’s body on the seat of my first two-wheeled bicycle.  I can feel the strength of my Dad behind me, holding onto the seat, pushing me along the sidewalk, pushing me, holding on, and then, in some moment, letting go, until I felt the freedom of that ride, that long ride that has taken me to this time, to this moment, to this day.  Then, I was practicing.  Then, I had the safety of Dad’s strength and love and joy until I took off on my own.

As we get older, what we face is different than what we faced when we were younger.  What I have faced in my life – the choices, the decisions, the moments, the sadness, the losses, the small and great griefs – is changing.  It has always been changing, although now I am more poignantly aware that my choices are changing.  And I can honestly say that the only thing that has gotten me through, the ever-changing practices I have gathered and practiced and discarded, and even those I continue today, are the cornerstone, and the one constant.

Make of your life a practice.