Photo Challenge: Magic. A little naiad (water nymph) guarding a tributary of the Vltava River, Prague.
Photo Challenge: Magic. A little naiad (water nymph) guarding a tributary of the Vltava River, Prague.
My mother was of the Moon. Aren’t all women?
Each month, when the moon is full, my mother comes to visit. I know it’s her way of telling me that she’s still with me. And how lovely to know that we’ll see each other every month until I no longer inhabit the earth. Perhaps then I’ll be with her on our infinite journey.
I usually photograph the rising moon or when it’s high in the sky. But this time, the first full moon after my mother’s death, I awoke early at 5:00 am and looked out the window. The moon was sliding down into her setting, and I said my final goodbye as the she took my mother with her.
The August moon is the most precious as my mom’s birthday is August 19th.
This week’s Photo Challenge: Morning. What better way to celebrate morning than by walking? Storks walking in a river in Vir, Czech Republic, 7 am.
It has been a long time since I’ve posted anything. I’ve had serious writer’s block as the past nine months have been challenging, full of emotion, a time to recast and reset patterns that have become destructive, a time to pull up every plant and look at the roots to see if they’re healthy for replanting or need to be tossed away.
I’ve been reading Elena Ferrante’s incredible tome of four books about a friendship that has lasted 60 years. And it’s hitting close to home. My “best” friend and I nearly made it, except that she died last year at 59. And we had had a terrible falling out five years ago. I’ve had a lot to think about and look back upon. A lifetime, in fact.
At 60 now, I finally feel like I can let go of a lot of shit, to put it bluntly. And that includes people who have been toxic for me. I’ve always been a giver, but after giving my entire life, I now know that I’ve chosen takers all too often, and as a giver, it’s time to set some boundaries because the takers won’t. One of the roles I’ve played, and am giving up now, is that of a cornerstone for people.
The problem with being a cornerstone in peoples’ lives is that they come to expect that you’ll always be there, strong and whole without chips or broken pieces, securely in place with cement all around, never worn down smooth from constant use over the years.
I admit I wanted to be a cornerstone for a lot of people. It brought gratification, acceptance, approval, love even. To be there always for someone gave us both strength. But it held huge responsibilities and guilt at times. When we moved to Italy 16 years ago, this same friend sobbed on the phone and said, “How can you move so far away and leave me? You’re my cornerstone.” Talk about guilt.
And when the cornerstone crumbles just a bit, changes position and becomes jumbled among other stones and bits of brick, who’s there to pick up the pieces? Where’s the cornerstone for the cornerstone? Not from the people to whom I’ve been one, apparently.
My original post as I wrote it was full of details about this person or that, those who had “wronged” me with their selfishness, those who never called me to ask how I’m doing, those who have gotten pissed off at me if I don’t call even when I’m in a difficult phase of my life. Ahem.
I realized that it sounded whiny and that I was feeling sorry for myself. I’m not. On the contrary, after the horrible break with my life-long friend who accused me of all sorts of terrible deeds that I had done to her, it was the kick in the ass I needed to let go and change my behavior. It was actually a gift, though a painful one.
I’ve learned a lot about life from building fires every night in our wood-buring stove. If you keep messing with it, trying to make it light more quickly by fussing and trying to control it, it won’t light. The best thing to do is let it catch by itself and then watch it glow and eventually brighten into a beautiful, roaring fire.
So, the cornerstone has been put away in a safe place where even I can’t get to it. It can crumble on its own, wear down, eventually slip away. And I won’t have to take responsibility any more for making sure it holds.
And I truly appreciate even more the other two wonderful friends I’ve had for over 40 years. One I met in junior high, the other when we worked together in our late teens. We’re always there for each other even if we don’t talk or write for months. I know now it’s because we’ve never considered the other to be a cornerstone, rather we’ve been more like gentle wild grasses that bend in the wind, grow and die with the changing seasons, then come back greener than ever, breathing with life, sometimes with surprising gifts, caressing each others’ hearts with brilliance, color, and love.
Our mothers didn’t die like this.
Today is the 65th anniversary of the death of a remarkable woman. Milada Horáková was arrested in Prague in 1949 and tried in the 1950 show trial that made the world stand still. She was condemned to death on trumped up charges of treason and being an enemy of the state.
The night before her execution, she was granted 30 minutes with her 16-year old daughter, Jana. After Jana left, Milada was allowed to write three letters: one to her husband, one to her sister, and one to Jana. The letter to Jana never reached her, but it survived. Jana first saw the letter in 1970 when it was published in some kind of underground paper. (I’ve quoted parts of the letter at the end of this blog along with a link to the entire letter.)
After spending the entire night writing her letters, Milada Horáková was brutally executed by hanging (the only woman to be hanged by the communists) in the early hours of June 27, 1950. She was 48 years old.
My connection to this historical figure—this incredibly brave woman, “mother, lawyer, social worker, humanitarian, enemy of dictatorship”—who sacrificed everything for her country, is through a book I’ve written about her colleague and friend who was also condemned to death in the show trials. His sentence was later reduced to 22 years hard labor in the Uranium mines, hence the reason I was able to meet him and write the book about him 50 years later. (The book will be published this fall in Prague, in Czech and English.)
But more important, my connection to her is through my husband’s father and through her only daughter, Jana Horáková Kansky, whom I have the privilege and honor of knowing. She spent many hours telling me the story of her parents, and her own story. The one thing she would not talk about was the content of the visit with her mother that fateful night.
My husband’s father and mother are buried in the Milada Horáková tomb in the National Cemetery in Prague, along with other brave souls who fought for a free Czechoslovakia. No one knows where Milada herself is buried. Jana told me that when she comes to Prague, she visits the tomb and three cemeteries with the hope that she’s visiting her mother.
Having lost my own mother four years ago, this letter reaches more deeply into my soul than I ever imagined. I have no further words; the heartbreak is too profound. Here are some of Milada’s words to her only little girl Jana:
My only little girl Jana,
God blessed my life as a woman with you. As your father wrote in the poem from a German prison, God gave you to us because he loved us. Apart from your father’s magic, amazing love you were the greatest gift I received from fate. However, Providence planned my life in such a way that I could not give you nearly all that my mind and my heart had prepared for you. The reason was not that I loved you little; I love you just as purely and fervently as other mothers love their children.
But I understood that my task here in the world was to do you good by seeing to it that life becomes better, and that all children can live well. And therefore, we often had to be apart for a long time. It is now already for the second time that Fate has torn us apart. Don’t be frightened and sad because I am not coming back any more. Learn, my child, to look at life early as a serious matter. Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody, and for every time it strokes you it gives you ten blows. Become accustomed to that soon, but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight. Have courage and clear goals and you will win over life. Much is still unclear to your young mind, and I don’t have time left to explain to you things you would still like to ask me.
…Go through the world with open eyes, and listen not only to your own pains and interests, but also to the pains, interests and longings of others. Don’t ever think of anything as none of your business. No, everything must interest you, and you should reflect about everything, compare, compose individual phenomena. Man doesn’t live in the world alone; in that there is great happiness, but also a tremendous responsibility.
…You have to put down your roots where fate determined for you to live. You have to find your own way. Look for it independently, don’t let anything turn you away from it, not even the memory of your mother and father. If you really love them, you won’t hurt them by seeing them critically—just don’t go on a road which is wrong, dishonest and does not harmonize with life. I have changed my mind many times, rearranged many values, but, what was left as an essential value, without which I cannot imagine my life, is the freedom of my conscience. I would like you, my little girl, to think about whether I was right.
…And don’t forget about love in your life. I am not only thinking of the red blossom which one day will bloom in your heart, and you, if fate favors you, will find a similar one in the heart of another person with whose road yours will merge. I am thinking of love without which one cannot live happily. And don’t ever crumble love—learn to give it whole and really. And learn to love precisely those who encourage love so little—then you won’t usually make a mistake. My little girl Jana, when you will be choosing for whom your maiden heart shall burn and to whom to really give yourself remember your father.
I don’t know if you will meet with such luck as I, I don’t know if you will meet such a beautiful human being, but choose your ideal close to him. Perhaps you, my little one, have already begun to understand, and now perhaps you understand to the point of pain what we have lost in him. What I find hardest to bear is that I am also guilty of that loss.
…Janinko, please take good care of Grandfather Kral and Grandmother Horakova. Their old hearts now need the most consolation. Visit them often and let them tell you about your father’s and mother’s youth, so that you can preserve it in your mind for your children. In that way an individual becomes immortal, and we shall continue in you and in the others of your blood.
…I kiss your hair, eyes and mouth, I stroke you and hold you in my arms (I really held you so little.) I shall always be with you. I am concluding by copying from memory the poem which your father composed for you in jail in 1940…
[There followed a poem written by her husband about the birth of their daughter, and a reading list.]
For the entire letter, here is a link:
For details of Milada Horáková’s incredible life, there are a number of websites. Here are two:
For plants and trees, autumn means death, or at least hibernation. I don’t see autumn as death; I see it as a glorious transformation from one phase to the next.
August 19, 2014
I’ve just reconnected with my dear friend Russ from 42 years ago. Little did he know what a gift he gave to me today.
My mother would have been 86 today, and I wish she were alive to see these old photos of me dancing my heart out with abandon, especially since I was ballet-trained and normally very disciplined. (These photos are stills taken from a very old film.)
She loved my dancing, supported and encouraged me, and she was there when I fell from grace.
Russ sent me a link to a dance recital from high school back in 1972. Memories of that night flooded back to me. Dance was my life, my breath, my soul. I went professional for one year before realizing the competition was too stiff and the pain too great. I came home from New York a little bit broken, but I knew I had made the right decision to quit. I continued dancing for years and now wonder why I don’t anymore.
Memories fade, what the body could do fades, the desire fades. After enough years, even the belief that one could do this—actually did do this—fades. I never felt good enough, always feared that I wouldn’t live up to expectations, knew that I didn’t have what it took to be a real dancer. Sometimes I wonder if it happened at all, was this person truly me?
I have photographs of my “dance career”, but even they seem unreal, posed, photos in frames on the wall that became wallpaper that no one ever looked at anymore.
But seeing an actual film of myself dancing with movement, soul, grace, and (gulp, dare I say it?) some talent, I knew it was me and it was real. We can never go back to another time, the past is the past, it’s over and done. I’ll never be that young, lithe body again, I’ll never feel on top of the world again, dancing with such freedom or suspended en pointe holding an arabesque for endless seconds. That chapter is closed.
And yet. Russ, you gave me back a part of my life today and made it live again inside of me. I can say with all honesty that I’m filled with joy for what had been. Seeing that chapter open for one moment has allowed me to close it once and for all without regrets. I am truly grateful for this gift of my past life, which I can now reintegrate into my present life emotionally, if not physically.
Mom, this is my gift to you today. You did well with your love, and these small moments are a tribute to you. Miss you so much.
What’s the one ingredient I can’t do without and why?
Olive oil. Because it’s the essence—soul, spirit, nature, heart—of life.
‘Beginning’ can evoke emotional and powerful feelings…but sometimes a beginning is…well, not quite what we thought it would be?
The greatest gift this birthday was the full moon, which brought my mother to me in its silvery light. I’m breathing again three years after her death; this is the first birthday I’ve wanted to celebrate since then. It’s just like her to know this and send the full moon to me.
Two years ago, I posted a piece about the gifts she had given to me on various birthdays (My birthday gift to you). This one tops the charts, for it’s the gift of getting my life back without the black hole that became my heart for too long. Life does go on with its pains and losses, joys and discoveries, and above all, with all the richness of color and living things that surround us if we take the time to look.
To breathe again is to take in the world and realize that this most precious thing we call life has been given to us…not to waste or rage against or try to obliterate. My birthday wish this year is the hope that the millions of people who don’t even come close to having what I have will be able to breathe one day and start to live.