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Entries in latvia (33)


Yesterday still lies in the cracks between floorboards.

I was fortunate enough to get to meet the great Latvian poet Imants Ziedonis sometime around 2002, in the basement of the Dailes Theatre. Over the joyful pump of dueling accordions celebrating the birthday of his wife, an actress in the theater, I shook his hand. I told him I had to remind myself to use the formal "Jūs" with him; he said not to worry about it, that he wasn't so formal himself. He told me the story of how he once went to speak to some children at a school. One boy said to him, "but wait, you're not dead?" And he said, "no, I don't think so." And the boy said "how strange, I thought we only read dead people in school!"

Imants Ziedonis passed away today at the age of 79, long after they started studying him in schools.

After his death had been announced, the following was posted on his Twitter account:

Grīdas dēļu šķirbās vēl guļ vakardiena. Viena nopūta dus trauku dvielī, un viens lamu vārds dus pavarda pelnos.

Translation: Yesterday still lies in the cracks between floorboards. One sigh rests in a dish towel, and one curse word rests in the fireplace ashes.

He always did write my favorite words. Rest In Peace, Ziedonis, wherever your words may fall.

(photo by Uldis Grasis)


Dangling socks and handwashed shirts, revisited.

(I'm currently in the process of reigniting a translation project, and while looking around for a few things, I found this in my archives. Tiny polished fragments. Unfortunately, things aren't all that different in my work process from how they were four years ago... fortunately, I'm not translating Ziedonis, so I'm less likely to get trapped in every single phrase. Ziedonis is a master trapper, and it was nice to come across these old familiar refrains.)

I haven't been translating for a while. As with everything I abandon, it eventually gets taken up again in a flurry of "I MUST"s. And so I picked up some old fragments of translations (Imants Ziedonis, Ephiphanies, wanting poetics in my prose) and made stuttering attempts at progress. Immediately, I was aware of my greatest and most debilitating weakness: I get trapped in the phrase.

We are the seers. We see what we don’t have to.

I fixate on one tiny sentence, and become so lost in finding its perfection that I have a hard time moving beyond it and polishing the rest of the piece. Or I fall in love with a sentence, and can't let it go.

My dangling socks and handwashed shirts.

I roll it around in my head and smile to myself, satisfied with the sound it makes. Unwilling to tackle the ugly misshapen phrases to its left or right.

My dangling socks and handwashed shirts.

You see? I'm trapped. Do writers do this too?

"He didn't squeeze the toothpaste tube from the end, but from the middle; he dipped his spoon right in the sour cream, and his whole life had neither end, nor edges."

I dwell in the wrong places, and become trapped.

Throw out the pike in the dewy grass. I have no need for evening pike. I reel in the line and look at the water as the light dawns again. That is what I want.

If there were awards for tiny polished fragments, I would be covered in gold.

(Originally posted on October 8, 2008)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


High Tide

Everything is proof of it—this forced gift of existence—even the tired face of a small-town bus driver in the early morning; it speaks of longing, the endless patience you have when scrutinizing good fortune that has unexpectedly dropped into your lap. And what does life offer in return…the quiet hum inside the bus where you can warm up, a change from the frozen and bleak winter landscape… What does it offer in return? A kiss goodbye from your wife before you head out, and the mildly bitter taste of coffee with cream? The early morning fog and a dead moose on the side of a road? Like an Indian who gets glass beads in return for gold, you trade the suffering of existence in return for the smell of baking bread. The feel of a dog’s wet nose against your hand. The look in your children’s eyes. A bird feeder. May it all bring you joy, says this opposing, unwanted, huge opportunity—Life. Truth everywhere, like rows and rows of weeds that need only a bit of rain to grow: a handful of TV shows, a handful of philosophical essays, a handful of tight-lipped snobs, a handful of bartering vendors.

Inga Ābele, Paisums (High Tide) translated by Kaija Straumanis



A little breeze will scarcely blow,
How I loved them, I’ll tell you so.
A little breeze will scarcely caress,
I’ll be a fool, my mind bereft.
I’ll cry. But when with crying I’m done
I’ll go house to house and tell everyone
that there’s nothing more precious than these roads that wind
            from morning until evening time.
            You’ll give me lodging.
I’ll say: thanks, although,
if I stay, who’ll travel my road?
I don’t know, folks, my home is where?
Only this - white dust did fill the air.

(Imants Ziedonis, "Roads")

* * *

We have visitors. Visitors from far away. Sometimes it feels like they're from so far away that they must have broken free from my own past.

1. I take them to Momofuku, where people shout with mouths full of trout roe and market greens. They can’t believe the noise, the way we sit shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbors. “But this is New York: everyone has to surround themselves with energy, excitement,” I try to explain, mouth full of pork bun. They can’t believe people stand in line for food.

Perspective: In Latvia, a good restaurant is a quiet one. One where you can think while you eat your food. I wonder if they remember bread lines.

2. The sound of the sirens on the roads outside our window. Some are emergencies, others the sensitive car alarms set off by the whiz of passing traffic and the rumble of the train. Shouts at night, motorbikes revving and racing through traffic lights. Louder when you know someone from far away is sleeping in the next room.

Perspective: How many roads have I lived on where I can hear trains outside my window, or the rumble of trolleybuses over cobblestones? Three? Four? Are my dreams of fields of dandelions powered by their engines?

3. In May when the sun sets in this city, there’s a light that falls over the asphalt and concrete, a light much like how I picture the light in heaven. If there were a heaven. “Tāda gaisma,” I say. That light. Our visitors put their hands to their hearts too. This universally beautiful light. Perspective.

* * *

I’m eighteen. Standing on the edge of a ravine, watching these young boys who are now my only friends swing on a rope, knocking each other over like bowling pins on the return, laughing uncontrollably with mouths open. Latvian mouths. Latvian teeth, Latvian tongues. I stand above them, at a distance, surrounded by trees in the last burst of green from the summer, wondering if I will ever understand the things they’re saying. We ride a bus back into the city. They fill out crossword puzzles and make farm animal noises in the back of the bus; I sit quietly on top of the wheel well, watching birches and pines and tower blocks spin by along the road, punctuated by pauses at geometric shelters full of old women carrying baskets. Feeling every mile between me and home.

Fifteen years later, the city streets dipping their tails in the last of this universally beautiful light, we walk arm-in-arm down 14th street. The arteries of roads and sidewalks throbbing with taxis and pedestrians. Clogged at the corners, noise and people and light. And still I feel every mile in between.

(If you have a moment, you can listen to the song and poem that inspired this post here, third song down, Jānis Holšteins - Upmainis (Goran Gora): Ceļi.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


On Missing Out

All I can wish for you is that you get what you wish for yourself.

You can't always get what you want.
Miks Džegers

This is the point at which we have arrived: we're finally in a place, technologically, where it's possible to feel equally close to and far away from the people you love in far-off places.

Which is worse: knowing or not knowing? Knowing that you missed out. Seeing pictures of a gathering you couldn't make. A reunion. A show. Hearing everyone tell you how great it was. YOU MISSED IT. You should have been there. It was AMAZING. Is it better to be cut off? Left unawares?

A few days ago, I happened to notice on Twitter that my friend Gustavs, one of the biggest recording artists in Latvia, was playing a show for his new album—Trešā elpa (Third Wind)—at a venue in Riga called "Arena." I wrote to my best and oldest Latvian friend, Čižiks—video director, Latvia's official whistler, and Gustavs' partner in rhyme—on Facebook:

"I really, really want to go to this gig. My transporter is on the fritz; can you help? I don't have tickets; am I on the guest list?"

"You're on the guest chart!"

"Shame about the transporter then."

I was sad. I should have been there: I had intended to spend the month of October in Latvia. Things happened, as they do, plans changed, paychecks beckoned, and instead of eating saldskabjumaize and biezpiens and drinking balzams by the sea, I've spent October hard at work, tucked into books, devising projects and getting myself involved in Other Important Things.

So what's the big deal? I'd been to two of Gustavs' shows before. The first was an outdoor show outside the Dole supermarket in the Riga neighborhood of Ķengarags; I stood with his grandmother and watched how afterwards he was swarmed by autograph hunting pre-teens carrying skateboards, all bangs and wide eyes. The second was in a tiny factory town on the Estonia-Latvia border, where young girls stood awkwardly in the front row staring up at the rock star on stage. I'd ridden out to the bordertown with Gustavs' DJ, Monsta, in a responsibly-driven station wagon, making polite conversation as we tried to keep up with the racing BMW in front of us, the silhouettes of girls in short skirts laughing in the back window along the dark fir tree-lined highways. So I'd been there. I'd proudly watched on as he stirred the crowd to throw their hands in the air. What was it to miss another show? And then, online, I saw a video that showed the size of the place.

He wasn't just playing at a venue called "Arena."

He was playing an arena.

(Photo: Kristīne Šumska)

I really should have been there.

* * *

I was an obsessive journal keeper when I lived in Latvia in the mid-90s. The first mention of Gustavs in my journal is on September 1st, 1994, the day a fight broke out in Filharmonijas Square and the police had to come break it up. Gustavs—or "Ļoļiks" as I knew him then—was a new friend, a skinny kid with a shaved head and a baseball jacket, the grandson of a poet, who would end up becoming a poet of sorts himself. He sat with me and calmed my fears as some drunks slashed each other with broken vodka bottles. They shouted things at each other that I didn't yet understand. He was an angel, calmly explaining what was happening, telling me that not all of Latvia is like this.

He was only sixteen, but he was already looking for ways to view the world as a better place. As an adult he still does this, with songs like "Mūsu Soļi (Our Footsteps)." The song, released after the recent economic collapse in Latvia, encourages Latvians to lift themselves up as positive role models for others who have succumbed to stagnation. Even if you can't understand the words, I feel like the video—directed, incidentally, by Čižiks, who makes an appearance at 1:54—conveys such a positive message... it makes sense that these were the people I gravitated towards. People who view the world as the good place it can be, people who see angels in everyday people:

Fifteen years ago, I wouldn't even have known what half my friends were up to, the good messages they were preaching, apart from the occasional note received via airmail, two or three dim pictures thrown in the envelope. Even with visits once every two years to refresh my memory of the what it feels like to be there (and oh! what it feels like to be there), I wouldn't have known about the arena show, how marvelous it was, how uplifting and inspiring. I certainly wouldn't have known what other people thought.

But now? Facebook, Twitter, and Latvian versions of the same have me experiencing the minutae of a Latvian day through the eyes of my friends. With Gustavs and Čižiks, the knowledge is multiplied, thanks to music videos on YouTube, entire performances, rehearsals, radio interviews, photo galleries, articles written about Gustavs' crowdsurfing, blog posts, tweets, even—my god!—foursquare checkins from fans about to see the show.

It leaves me with this odd sense of knowing everything, participating by proxy, but hyper-aware of the fact that I'm not there. I can't taste the same bread they're tasting. I can't smell the sea. And yet it's as if I'm just around the corner. Is it possible that for the first time in my life I'm just as near as I am far? Is it possible that we're going to become closer and farther from each other at the same time, until physical distance isn't even a thing at all, yet there's still just as much heartache, if not more?

* * *

Sunday was a warm day. I walked up to the park to read on a bench, and found myself chatting with Čižiks over Skype.

"I want to come visit you guys!" he said. Just a day and a half after the show, he couldn't possibly know how much I wanted to visit them.

"Then come!" said I.

As I sat in the shadow of Grant's Tomb watching pigeons fight for airspace, I imagined Čižiks in his far-off seaside home with its tall firs and birch trees out back, the quiet flap of cranes overhead in the cold night air. I looked down at his words on the little screen in my hands. I felt calm, happy. And then I realized: sometimes, when you're missing out, it's enough to hear a voice from far away telling you that you're still being missed too.

(More of my ramblings about Latvia can be found here.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.