Sibeliuskirkko

Lahti, Finland, has Sibeliustalo, Sibelius Hall, that the Lahti Symphony Orchestra calls home. There each September, a celebration of music by Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, takes place, with a select venue of concerts, followed by the customary visits to his birthplace, home and points of importance in his life by those who make the trip to Lahti. In this commemorative year, Finland, and the world at large, celebrates the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth. Lahti was to see not the usual long weekend of concerts, but an entire week! All of his symphonies would be performed and a large selection of his most significant works, plus daily recitals and chamber works! It was an event that no one devoted to the life and music of Sibelius could miss. But I did! Finland is a long way off for me, so when we got news of a concert commemorating the 150th anniversary year of our beloved composer right here in San Diego, a dear friend and I, fellow devotees of the finer arts where Sibelius holds a particular place of honor, were excited.

les trois apres concert
Russamari Teppo, great great granddaughter of Jean Sibelius, with Erik Homenick and the author.

The flyer said “Sibelius Concert Service,” to be held at a local Lutheran Church. Of particular note was that one of the artists to perform was great great granddaughter of Sibelius, Ruusamari Teppo, an accomplished concert pianist. The word “service,” gave me hesitation: was I going to hear a concert or going to a religious service? The latter was not what I wished to attend. I spoke to my friend of my doubts as to what this concert-service involved, but he could not fathom the idea that I would miss the event honoring Sibelius, and particularly the opportunity to meet Mrs. Teppo, the closest to Sibelius “in person” we may ever come! He kept saying: “This will be our very own 150th anniversary celebration. Unthinkable to miss it!” I couldn’t resist the import of the argument or the forlorn look in his eyes as he considered the possibility that I might miss this event celebrating the master composer for whom we shared such a great love. I would go!

As we arrived among the gathering guests in the foyer, we were immediately engulfed in the arms of a Finnish friend who was instrumental in organizing the concert. She broke through the gathering guests, opened her chiffon draped arms like a mother swan gathering in her brood, and swept us both up together in a warm Finnish welcoming hug. I felt as if I had just been transported to Finland and from there on, everything had to go well. And so it did. The next couple of hours were full of music, but we were in church all right  -Sibeliuskirkko!  With the music of Sibelius, it is easy to touch the eternal.

There were a couple of spiritual songs in Finnish, sung by the small, but excellent choir, and one sing-along. The rest of the evening was pure Sibelius. Performing were, Ruusamari Teppo, piano, Jussi Makkonen, cello, Jari Suomalainen, violin, and Irene Marie Patton, vocal. The program was a full evening of delight, one work after another worthy of the Lahti concert venue, and the musicians could not have played more beautifully!

The evening’s program: Kuusi, Impromptu, Souvenir, Trio in A minor for piano, violin and cello, “Havträsk(unpublished, 1886), The Tempest: (Jussi Jalas arrangement, unpublished), Arioso, Masurkka, Valse Triste, and of course ….Finlandia!

Each work was an intimate visit with our beloved Sibelius, but the two that touched me most deeply were Valse Triste, and Finlandia, both played exquisitely by Jussi and Ruusamari. Valse Triste, so often heard before, found me unexpectedly a captive of the deeper thoughts that Sibelius’ life and music have so often inspired in me, and I sat motionless, alone with my thoughts, not wanting the moment to end.

But as the best things in life are often fleeting, as if to confirm their definition of extraordinary, the concert must end. But Sibelius, master of the “final note,” had one last grand statement to make. Finishing the program in the honored tradition of Sibelius concerts with the work so much a part of the Finnish soul, here was the great great granddaughter of Sibelius playing his Finlandia with passion and sensitivity,. This was no less than an historic moment! The acute disappointment that I had been feeling for months at being unable to attend the Lahti Festival, or meeting Jean Sibelius on his home ground, were no longer relevant. Like the good friend that he has always been, here was Sibelius come to us!

The Hidden Years

As I look back at my childhood, I can see now that I was living a life that was in large part passive. Most of my growing up was going on “inside”. I can recall few distinct memories of when I was actually, aggressively pursuing anything other than playing with my neighborhood friends and watching the world go by. Thinking? – yes. Acutely aware of all that was going on around me? – not a doubt. But actively, purposefully controlling my daily activities – no.

Mom loved me a little too much. and as a result, she was overly controlling where I was concerned. This certainly contributed in part to my passive nature then. Can we debate whether one can really “love too much?” Love is expressed in many ways, but some are healthier than others. When love says: “this is mine and I love it to death, that is exactly what happens” – The object of this love dies. Too much water and sun can kill a growing plant. If this plant did not die, it was because a greater power was already at work and had the situation well in hand.  And I think I sensed even then that I was not to lead, but to follow….that Someone Greater would lead my life. And that was good.

I didn’t talk much. I listened. For this, I must give thanks to my mother, who talked a lot. She had so much to say and it was so interesting, that I had no reason to say much as a child. People said I was too shy, hinted that I might even be “backward”. They said I shouldn’t hide behind the couch when family and friends gathered to talk in the living room. I wasn’t hiding. I was observing the comedy of life at its richest. I would lay back there on the floor with my pillow, nice and comfy, and listen to every word that was being said, undisturbed, and fascinated! I was enjoying it too much to come out and be a part of what was already becoming apparent to me: It’s wiser to speak little and listen much. That’s where I learned the most. They didn’t understand that this was my strength, not my weakness. The truth is that those were some of my wisest years as a child. I was acutely aware of all that was going on, and learning.

I was not afraid to interact socially. It never occurred to me that it was necessary to make special efforts to that end. My world was complete. This “only girl” in the family received more loving affection from Mom’s large traditional French family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second and third cousins, and all their friends, in the first years of my life than some people receive in a lifetime. Daddy had no family: he had been an orphan, but I was “his little sunflower” and his love alone was a worthy match for my mother’s family’s. That’s a source of security. I heard so many fascinating stories over the dinner table and at family gatherings that my mind was full of things to think about. I watched attentively as those around me went through the usual and the unexpected joys and pitfalls of life, dealing with each one in turn. I didn’t have to make decisions about what to wear, how to comb my hair, what time to get up and go to bed, when to eat. Mom did that. Amazingly, I never perceived my mother’s control as a problem. It only became so when I grew up and Mom’s strong spirit would reach beyond the limits allowed. Never was it a problem for the child. Others did the necessary daily chores of raising me. Where I was able to roam at will was within. That was when I learned that no one can touch you, harm you, control you “inside”. That’s the one place over which we have sole proprietorship. Many will argue this fact, but it’s the truth: the actions of others can only really affect us if we let them

This was a big lesson for a small child to learn. If I appeared all too passive on the outside, an activity of a grander nature was nevertheless continuously going on inside. I quietly observed the active pursuits of everyone else, and learned from their mistakes, from their occasional petty or hurtful words, from the consequences of their unfortunate decisions, from their good actions that ended in happy results. By the time I was nine, I had learned much about what to do and what not to do in order to live life well.

Why I write the book – My Memoirs

The Circle is Drawn They called me the “Blitz Krieg” baby. At 7:30 in the evening, Mom and Dad were enjoying a night out at the movies, with a week to go before the anticipated blessed event. At 8:00 PM, Mom and Dad were at the hospital, and the “blessing” was about to arrive. I was not officially due yet and no one was ready for me. However incredible it may seem, a nurse was frantically trying to hold me in until the doctor arrived. Hospital rules “did not allow a baby to be born without the doctor present.” The laws of Nature were not considered. Apparently the doctor and I arrived at the same time. I have a picture in my mind of a fast scrub, a quick entrance, and a marvelous catch just as the ball…er, baby, was passed straight into the hands of the star “quarterback”. A touchdown at this point would have been anticlimatic. I’ve never been a fan of football. I wasn’t paying attention. But Dad was. He had refused to leave Mom’s side for the birth, made a scene when they told him he was not allowed in the operating room, and the nurses finally gave up and made him scrub and gown up. I arrived, the doctor exclaimed to all present that “here’s a fine pair of football shoulders”, then quickly corrected himself: “No, these shoulders won’t play football.” My dad let out a whoop, and that’s the last Mom saw of him until the following afternoon. The story goes that my Dad made some kind of marvelous spectacle of himself upon learning that “it was a girl”. I was born into a large extended family of eighteen cousins and two siblings – all boys! Mom had a bit of a rough time – not surprising when you think of the persistent efforts of that nurse to go against long-established norms of nature. It wasn’t until a few days later that Mom and I left together accompanied by one very proud, smiling father. On the way out, as Mom told it later, one nurse after another went up to her, with eyes rolling, and said excitedly: “You should have seen your husband when the baby was born! We’ve never seen anyone do that before!” Mom’s inquiries as to the exact nature of what Daddy did that day went no where. No one would tell her. Shaking their heads and laughing, they just kept repeating: “You should have seen what your husband did!” And so I was born. ~~~ The Old Testament speaks of “types” – occurrences that precede and testify to the important events of the New Testament. You might say that they complete the circle. For those with an insight into life’s mysteries, these types are taken quite seriously and serve as wonderful prophesies of future events, only truly understood once the events have occured. I can’t help thinking that the year of my birth, and the beginning events of my existence, were types of where my life was to lead me and how it may one day end. I was born in 1941, the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II. The Germans were making rapid, un-anticipated bombing attacks on England at that time that were known as “blitz kriegs”. My insistence upon arriving unexpected and quickly into this world earned me that first title. I have no doubt that there was an agenda in place and it had to be met sooner than later. The type was set. It would be up to me to discover it one day. My first conscious memory is of a warm summer night, dark curtains moving softly in the breeze from the open window over my crib – and the sudden, terrible ululating sound of air-raid sirens. Mom says I couldn’t possibly remember: I was only a few months old! But I do. The memory is so clear to me that I can recall everything about it sixty-seven years later. And what I remember most is my world changing in an instant from a peaceful and secure state, with the sweet cooling breeze lulling me to sleep – to one of absolute, soul-shaking fear! Of course I didn’t know what those wailing noises were or meant, but I knew beyond a shadow of doubt what they represented. I have known such fear only a few times in my life and it was unmistakably the fear of Evil! I believe that when we are born, we are “whole”. The spirit that gives us life is already formed and if the child is limited in his or her abilities to interact with others, the intellect* is nevertheless as habile as it ever will be – perhaps even more so. By the very fact that we are unhindered by the as yet un-learned management of our physical world, we may be even more aware of the spiritual. California was in blackout and sirens were wailing to warn of possible attacks from Japanese war planes, which had already approached our coast. My parents had turned off the lights, pulled dark curtains across the windows and were probably reading stories to my brothers by candlelight to keep some semblance of calm, while fear lurked outside. Mom and Dad were attending to the necessary practical matters warranted by the occasion. My brothers, in the arms of my parents, were perhaps oblivious to danger. I can understand my parents being less concerned about me. Noise was noise, and I had been quite happy up until then to sleep or babble my way happily though all the noises of my surroundings, however loud or unexpected. And besides, what could a baby know about current events. My older brothers, on the other hand, perhaps sensing my parents concern, would need to be reassured. But I was the only one who sensed the nature of what really happening. This was my second “type”. I was, in effect, holding down the fort for my whole family, carrying a spiritual load full of comprehension of things eternal, to which I was still wide open. This tiny baby who had been created “in the spirit” of peace and light, and had known nothing but love from all who had come to welcome me, in one brief moment had perceived the face of Evil. I wonder if anyone can look the devil in the face and not be shaken to the core. We are of course speaking here of what the eyes cannot see. The connection between that event and my present direction in life makes it clear now that the type was set for my place in this world. I have lived more than one lifetime since then and have come nearly full circle to that blessed comprehension of things eternal, shedding, one by one, the material shackles by which I became bound over the years to the world, in the name of “practicality”. I could say here that this is my story. But that’s not entirely true. The story belongs to Another, and I am going to tell it. * To clarify the exact nature of “intellect” – Most of us have come to define it in terms of our “intellectual”, or mental capabilities. In reality, it refers to the highest part of our spiritual nature and is much more difficult to define, as it proceeds from the Creator, whose “reality” is of a higher nature, beyond our limited comprehension.

Say that again?

Let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France .. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. We take English for granted But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out, and in which an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

And why doesn’t “Buick” rhyme with “quick”   

Blogger Note: The English language has enough  pitfalls for anyone learning it, that it is amazing anyone does.  My hat’s off to the immigrants who come to the U.S. knowing no English and in rather short order, become better at it than many of those who are born here.

Una Caida de Mas(iado)

Era un día típico de invierno en Xalapa, un chipi chipi que empapaba hasta los huesos y las calles mojadas, incluso la Calle de Revolución que tomaba yo cada tarde para ir a la Alianza Francesa donde daba yo clases. Yo sabía que el camino iba a ofrecer cierto reto, puesto que las piedras volcánicas de la banqueta estaban resbalosas, y hasta cubiertas de musgo por partes. Pero emprendí mi camino con confianza, no queriendo faltar a mis obligaciones. A decir la verdad, me encantaba mi trabajo. No era cuestión de regresar. Desde luego, en Xalapa todos saben que la lluvia es parte de la vida y a nadie se le ocurriría quedarse en casa un lindo día de chipi chipi.
A penas empecé a bajar la calle, me resbalé y me caí duro. Un joven que andaba detrás de mí, se apresuró para ayudarme. Le di las gracias y seguí mi camino. Di unos pocos pasos más y me caí de nuevo. El mismo joven, que aun andaba atrás de mí, llegó de nuevo a mi ayuda y me levantó. Yo estaba empezando a sentirme incomoda, y un poco avergonzada, pero me aseguró el muchacho que no debía sentir pena, que todos sabíamos lo resbaloso que se ponían las piedras en un día similar. Seguí caminando, con el joven a unos pasos atrás.
Mi falda ya lucía una mancha grande de lodo verdusco, pero yo, con el espíritu de un Don Quijote que no se sabe vencer, iba a llegar a mi clase cueste lo que cueste. Se me estaba haciendo tarde y me apresuré un poco, ahora sosteniéndome con las barras de las ventanas. Ni lo van a creer! Me caí otra vez! Mi joven caballero no tardó en ofrecerme el brazo para levantarme, esta vez sin que nos dirigiéramos una sola palabra. Sin duda los dos nos estábamos preguntando si esa comedia iba a terminar.
Pues yo, con mayor determinación, y con la seguridad de que con tres caídas ya, seguramente había cumplido con mi cuota para el día, me puse a caminar como si nada, recorriendo hasta varios metros sin novedad, siempre aferrada a las barras y pisando con cuidado piedra por piedra. Pero el Tlaloc no me quiso mostrar compasión: Mi pie encontró una piedra “enemiga” ….y me caí por cuarta vez! Con una expresión de incredulidad, mi caballero me pasó sin echarme ni siquiera una mirada, y siguió calle abajo. La cortesía, al parecer, tiene sus límites!
Yo, con la falda llena de lodo, las medias rotas, y una rodilla lastimada, me levanté, di vuelta, y sin pensar más, regresé a casa. La perseverancia tiene sus límites también!

What goes around . . . goes around

That detergent stain on the floor of the Laundromat had been there for 20 years! I know. I used to stare at it between pages of the magazine I was reading, wishing it away, while waiting for my clothes to dry. I came here often when my sons and I first arrived in the U.S. I couldn’t believe that 20 years had gone by, and I was back at the same Laundromat. And I couldn’t believe that stain was still there.

From the day of our arrival, fresh from half a lifetime in Mexico, with nothing but our clothes, some linens, and a few pots and pans to our name, to that moment when I found myself staring again at the sullied carpet, another lifetime had gone by. But as I looked at that stain, I wondered . . .what had really changed?

Back to our first arrival …

We were “home,” but the future was an empty space… and a lot would have to change for us to settle into our new life in the States. After learning to drive, it was time for me to find a place to settle. I was looking for someplace rural, close enough to a small city for short commutes to town or school for my sons –in Northern California! I wanted no part of the great Southern California metropolis. My cousin and I sat down with a map and put circles around all the cities in Northern California and Oregon that fit my criteria, I shined up his little Volkswagen, packed for my trip and, leaving my two sons in the capable hands of my cousin and his wife, I drove off to explore. My first solo trip presented some challenges of which I will speak later, but as for taking to the road, I loved it!

After visiting several of my “circles on the map,” heading north on I-5 toward Redding, a little more than two hours out of Sacramento on a clear, sunshine-filled day, I had a ‘revelation’. Suddenly on the horizon, there appeared a majestic snow-capped mountain. Alive with reflected sunlight, its lofty cone seemed to reach right up to heaven and everything else “disappeared” before its imposing presence. I swear to this day that the sounds around me disappeared as well, as I traveled the next few miles in awe of this sight. Apparently I was not alone, years later I found this 1874 quote by John Muir: “When I first caught sight of Mount Shasta I was fifty miles away and afoot, alone and weary. Yet all my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since.”

Mt shasta new 3Although my first impression of the natural beauty of the region was instrumental in my decision, something else far more important would become the reason for setting down roots. It concerns the “types” of my life (from the first chapter written, not yet revealed)

We moved to Redding. We were living from month to month on a small government check while I looked for a job with the right hours so that I could be at home for my children when they were not in school. I cried at every delay of our meager lifeline when the basics of life became untenable, stayed home with my kids while other families were spending their summers at the Lake, used every resource available to obtain food or firewood when we ran out. The only treat I could afford was an ice cream a month for each of us when I went grocery shopping with the newly arrived welfare check. The children were so happy at our shared “ice cream social” you would have thought I’d taken them to Disneyland. God bless them!

The hardest moment those first months was when my cousin came to pick up the Volkswagen he had loaned us until we could get a car of our own. That car of our own was nowhere near possible when he drove away with his little VW. We were living in an inexpensive bungalow behind our landlord’s, out in the country, far from the bus lines. Life had already slowed to a crawl. Without a car, it would virtually stop. But I didn’t say anything. I just smiled and waved as my cousin drove away, and prayed a little harder that night.

My first thought when my cousin left was “how are the kids going to get to school?” There is nothing as inspiring as a problem with no apparent solution: you either give up, or you move. I called the school, and the next day, my sons were waiting by the mailbox early in the morning to catch a ride with a friendly neighbor whose children were going to the same school.

Thanksgiving was only two days away. I was putting the final touches to a big pot of chili beans, whose ingredients I had acquired at the community food bank, when I got a call from my kids’ principal. “Would I be kind enough to share the ride with my sons to school the next day? He would see that I got back home.”

With that feeling of foreboding that comes with constantly being on the defensive while struggling with life’s difficulties (were my kids in trouble? Were they being set back a grade because of language problems? . . .), I walked into the principal’s office promptly at 8:00. I walked out again at 8:20, carrying a huge box full of food , complete with a 15 lb turkey and a greeting card that said: “We know you’re having a tough time right now, so here’s a little gift from us to you. We also know that you will repay in kind as the years go by. God bless you. HAPPY THANKSGIVING . The Faculty and Principal of Buckeye School.”

I had never before been the recipient of charity and it was a humbling experience. I surprised myself by not feeling embarrassed. The need was there – and accepting was the only gracious thing to do. With tears in my eyes, I mouthed a “thank you” as I walked out and got into the car waiting to take me home. Thus began our new life in the U.S. … and a reminder of what we have here that few, if any, other countries have – love for a neighbor in need! When disaster or hardships arise, so does everyone else …to get people back on their feet.

It’s amazing how comfortable one can be in a house without furniture – lots of space, open and clean. Our bed was king size: we had the whole floor to sleep on, with blankets spread out for a mattress and a couple on top to keep warm. The two large wooden packing boxes that I had shipped from Mexico with our few belongings made handy all-purpose tables for eating, writing letters or doing homework, and served as storage when I put the bedding away each morning . What else did we need?

Our life was eventually “furnished,” however, by little miracles, one by one. Someone gave our landlords a huge load of two-by-four end pieces of the finest cedar for their wood-stove. They had wood already. We inherited the load for our stove. By the end of winter, we had wood to spare, so I bought nails and a hammer and nailed a row of the short pieces together onto the longer ones, fashioning legs with the mid-sized pieces. We had a kitchen table and two benches!

That summer, our landlords and their two kids invited my sons to go camping with them for a few days. They returned with a large piece of plywood and two nearly new, five-inch thick foam pads that, together, fit the plywood perfectly. “Found these abandoned in the woods”, they said. “Can you use them?”

I knew just what to do with them. Next day, I rounded up some more fire wood and nailed legs onto the plywood. I put the foam pads on top and covered them with the linens we had brought with us and a lovely serape from Mexico. We had a bed!

I was talking on the phone one day with a dear friend from Nevada and the subject of cars came up. I had to admit that we didn’t have one. Within a week, she and her husband pulled into our driveway – in separate cars – to honor us with a surprise visit. It was a surprise all right! One of the cars apparently hadn’t been used much and they thought we just might give it a home. The price was right – $500 to be paid whenever or however we could. We had a car!

That first year back in the States we went from a tiny bungalow, no car, and not much more than our clothes and a few household items, to a two-bedroom house, humbly but adequately furnished, our first car, a part-time teaching job for me, and the kids settled in with new schools and friends. We had a life.

My sons grown and on their own, facing each in turn their own challenges, I had moved to a small apartment with no washer/dryer, and found myself back at the same Laundromat. Some things didn’t seem that much different. Uncle Sam was again footing the bills with social security and SSI. It was not enough. But when ends didn’t meet – as they never did – I didn’t cry any more. I had seen the “lilies of the field.”
End of the Line? Not Yet

With two chairs in the living room, one inherited from Mom when she passed away, and that plywood and cedar-leg bed ( now cut down to a single) topped by a foam pad, and those blankets that followed us from Mexico, I moved in to my new apartment. With the family gone, I had trimmed my life down refreshingly to the essentials. But the miracles would continue.

I acquired a sofa from a friend who was re-decorating her home, and a rug and two Tiffany lamps from another dear friend “who had them in storage and wanted me to have them.” There was a large wicker storage basket elegantly gracing my beside – another “gift”, along with the hand-me-down bookshelves that hold my books, T.V., stereo and tapes. I had a new computer, from my computer-savvy son, who had an array of them “coming and going” on his work table to choose from. The two “reject” tables that my youngest brought me from the throw-away bin when he worked for the cabinet makers were perfect for my artwork. The flaws that made them unfit for sale weren’t noticeable – a nice return on that cedar-pieced kitchen table that holds so many memories: he was using it still in his apartment.

The large square basket sitting upside-down by Mom’s big chair came to me from another friend who was moving to a smaller place. It used to hold her firewood. It made a great end-table. I stored things under it as I did with those first packing boxes. A computer table, with place mats neatly stored on the slide-out keyboard shelf, was in the kitchen, graced by two bamboo decorator chairs that my former land-lady was getting rid of. Around these humble furnishings, everything was bright and homey with colorful home-made throw pillows and lots of plants . . . and my walls were covered with original, expensive artwork. I’m the artist, so I could afford them. When friends came to my home, they would tell me that my place looked just like a page from a decorator book. I was amazed. They didn’t seem to see it as a humble array of hand-me-downs. I’m convinced that what they were seeing is the love that brought them all to me.

I never forget the miracles, nor the guardian angels who have appeared in so many forms to bring them to me, for believe as you like, they were there!

My thoughts return to the Laundromat and that detergent stain, but now I was seeing it with new eyes. On the outside, maybe nothing had changed: the money was short and the miracles never seemed to stop. But that stain knows something that puts it all in perspective. It has seen and heard a thousand stories like mine, as single moms with their children, immigrant workers, struggling students, traveling nurses, sundry apartment dwellers, and even a few homeless have shuffled over it from washing machine to dryer, sharing their stories with each other as they passed through. That’s the key phrase: “passing through’.

We are only passing through. The “things” that we use as we go are only as valuable as the spirit within them – the giving heart, the friend in need, the grateful prayers and the helping hand extended in turn. What goes around, must go around in turn. This is what sustains us. I hope I’ve learned my lesson: the stain on the carpet doesn’t matter any more. It’s the stains on our souls that need attention. And I think the miracles and the grateful prayers have already helped wash many away.

And now….. Ten years in San Diego and new adventures to relate. The story isn’t over!

Home again?

We were met in Los Angeles by my cousin. I was met by “deja-vu”: the bus pulled in and let us out behind the train station, where I had once gone with my family as a little girl, for my brothers’ and my first train ride. Children remember the most unexpected things. As soon as I walked through the doors into the grand hall of this fabulous Art Deco station, I had an instant vision of a five-year old little girl, dressed in a red coat and matching red felt hat, sitting with her family in a restaurant whose big glass windows looked out on the highest ceiling she had ever seen with people scurrying in all directions, staring in amazement at the steaming cup of hot chocolate with a mountain of whipped cream and the hot cinnamon roll, topped by melted butter on a thick beige “cafe plate” set before her. A fork and knife were nicely laid out on a cloth napkin to one side. It was all new. It was all wonderful. Every little detail of that adventure returned to my mind, fresh as the day it had occurred. That magical moment for me had remained in the back of my mind, and had found its way back to me only then, as if to say: “Nothing has changed at all.” My years growing up, my travel to France and later to Mexico to marry and raise a family, the joys and heartbreaks of half a lifetime, seemed to be wiped away by this memory, as if something deep inside were telling me: “It’s OK now. You’re back where you belong.” I had, indeed, made full circle. After hugs all around, my cousin whisked this bedraggled group of bewildered travelers off to his waiting Cadillac and then to his house in Glendale, no more than a few blocks from the hospital where I had been born! We were “home”, but if anyone needed a decompression chamber to return to normalcy it was I. I had traveled to other countries, and been met with enough unexpected challenges in my life to be able to handle anything that came my way – I thought! Here I was at the end of a journey, and should have felt safe and relaxed. Instead, I felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under me. I didn’t “feel” American. All too easy for me to understand the bewildered, lost look on the faces of the growing number of immigrants from more humble origins who come to live in America. In the following months, my cousin would proceed to “re-Americanize” me, despite my reluctance to go out into this – inexplicably for me, given my origins – strange new world! The first thing I noticed is that there were no people. Indeed, the streets were bare of this life form and I couldn’t understand where everyone had gone. In Mexico, when you step out the door, you are “in people”. The streets are full of them coming and going, stopping to chat or exchange news. The sidewalk cafes are full of them at all hours of the day and night, and the stores, banks, churches, arcades of the government palaces, parks and plazas – you name it! – are full of them. It’s a very social place. As my cousin took us to all the required places in my re-Americanization process, I did my best to discover people along the way. The only ones I saw were in cars – backing out of driveways, going back and forth to town and racing madly along the many freeways that crisscrossed the area. One day after driving us all around town to get social security numbers for the kids, register them in school, catch up with their vaccinations, open my first ever bank account, apply for my first ever driving permit, sign up at the Social Services Department for welfare to help us get started (remember my savings never made it across the border), and pick up maps at AAA, my cousin said: “Let’s go get something to eat before we go home.” Straight ahead was a huge building, several city blocks square, with an interesting architecture but no windows. My cousin pulled into an opening to one side and down we went, three dimly-lit floors to find a place to park.. Aha! An underground parking lot. Across a dark, lonely passage between countless lines of parked cars, to find an elevator, and up we went. We were going to “The Mall”. What was my surprise when the doors finally opened to an impressively large open space, bright with skylights, when I saw – people! There they were. Hundreds of them – young families hanging on to restless children tugging at their arms or running to catch the “one that got away”, teen-agers gathered in front of the shops, bags of sundry sizes and colors hanging from their arms as they laughed, oohed, and aahed while sharing their “finds”, elderly gentlemen sitting silently in comfortable armchairs, waiting apparently for “Mom” to finish her shopping. Every inch of walking space was covered with people coming and going between the shops. So that’s where people go, I thought. Novel idea to meet under a big roof with the sole intention of buying their little hearts out. This was a first insight into a different America than the one I had known while growing up. It became obvious to me that social life in America was very much dependent on buying. I tested this out, hoping that other more cultural pursuits were harboring life, but inevitably I found the parks nearly empty, the playgrounds with only a few children, the library all too vacant, and even an occasional concert sadly lacking in attendance. My apologies to those who were living in more culturally/socially-inclined American cities. Remember this was my first impression of the States after living half a lifetime in cultures where people are everywhere to be seen. At least in Glendale, they were not. The kids assimilated well into their new schools, I began my search for work, and we spent the first few months enjoying “family” dinners with my cousin and his wife, chatting and watching movies at home in the evenings. I was starting to feel more confident, except for one thing – driving! I was 40 years old and had never driven before. This of course, needed fixing. You can’t live in California without knowing how to drive if you expect to live a normal life. So my cousin took me out several times a week in his little Volkswagen to learn. He was a good teacher. I did well as long as he was in the car and soon learned to get around in town and on the freeways with confidence. Learn to drive in Los Angeles, and you can drive anywhere! Then one day, he handed me the keys and said: “Go drive. You don’t need me now. It’s time for the bird to fly.” I was petrified! Alone? All by myself? But I did it. At 40, I learned to drive. I’m not the typical Californian. I am still “discovering” America, and I remain a “round peg in a square hole”. I guess I AM home.