A tiny mouse No bigger than my thumb Lay dying outside my door Still breathing, still moving Little pink paws Crawling toward safety And the mother she lost A little brown creature I wrapped in a tissue That trembled with Each of her dying breaths A tissue transformed Into a shroud That enveloped that Tiny body I placed into the earth Next to the gardenia plant In my garden Where the memory of That tiny mouse Will be transformed Into the fragrance of a flower
Why is it That graffiti Sometimes Looks like blood stained Spots Instead of dots Why is it That iridescent Paint Can look Like someone’s Pain Splattered against A train Why is it That words Soaked Into concrete Walls Can sent out Brutal screams…..screams…..screams….screams And why Do I Sometimes Hear Walking On certain City curbs My footsteps…strangling The muffled remains Of a lettered Sound Dying Against The ground
Joy on my table A simple vase cradling flowers Whose names perfume the air in serenity White roses, pink nasturtium In a frame of pale green ferns Fanning their patterned faces Against the gray Of an embroidered linen cloth Where porcelain dishes sparkle In the slices of sunshine Floating in with the divine Darting through a window pane Porcelain in silver and blue Paint a promise of celebration Against the table Where a basket of bread Rivals with crystal goblets Awaiting their ruby attire All is silence in expectation of aromas Dancing into the colors and Sparkling light of my table Set for gustatory delight A wild creature I call him fluffy Because of the panache Of his tail And the white duvet That blankets his belly And when he stands on His hind legs Holding a prized peanut In his miniature hands He seems drunk with a Happiness I understand Watching a feral creature A squirrel conveying his bliss Munching on a peanut I leave for him to find In exchange for the joy This little wild being bestows Upon my human heart
Whenever I watch a prominent person interviewed on television, I’m amazed to see a display of bookcases in the background. It not only gives an insight into the tastes and knowledge of the speaker but it affirms the belief and hope that books are still vital to the human soul.
Being an avid reader, I bemoaned books being sacrificed to technology in the form of a cold and robotic item known as a Kindle. I am perhaps rebelling against the changes in a world racing toward constant innovation but seeing people in the subway with open books on their laps, fills my heart with gratification that I still belong to a caring world.
My love of books goes back to my childhood and where I was born in Brussels Belgium a year before Hitler invaded Poland. My father, a tailor, emigrated from Poland with his wife and three children in the early thirties. He unfortunately lost her to a car accident. After a time he wrote to the rabbi of his hometown to request an introduction to a woman willing to come to Belgium. And that is how my mother, a mail order bride came to Belgium to marry my father. I was born at the end of that year followed by a little sister in 1942.
It wasn’t meant to be for Jews living in Europe at that time. We became the victims of a world destroyed by the evil machinations of one man. My mother, sisters and brother died in a concentration camp. My father and I survived due to miraculous circumstances but for me the war began after the war. My father came back to Brussels with the woman who had shared the war years with him, hiding in an attic with her son. We lived in two rooms of a shabby cold-water flat in a neighborhood known for its poverty. The house always smelled of gas and coal fumes. The outhouse was in the back of a courtyard beside stacks of coal and a large slate sink where we went for water.
My liberation came when I started school. My teacher was aware of my background and paid special attention to me. By the time I was eight years old I was able to walk to school by myself. And that is how I discovered the library nestled in the recess of a street two blocks from our house. It soon became my home away from home. Melle Vroemans, the librarian had received a letter from my teacher informing her of my situation at home. She was to become one of the most influential persons in guiding me to feel the wonder of books and the power of the knowledge they bestowed. I loved the physicality of the library with its stacks of books and the smell they emanated. As soon as I stepped into the door, I felt wrapped in the warmth of silent beings coming to greet me as they descended from their covers stacked to perfection on the shelves. In the winter there was a fire burning in the small wooden stove in an open area away from the books but close enough so that Melle Vroemans didn’t have to wear her shawl. The room was divided into two areas, the one to the left for children and for adults to the right. I had my seat next to a large window where I enjoyed watching the play of light casting patterns on my reading. It was here that I discovered the adventures of that extraordinary little detective, Tintin and his faithful dog Milou.
I accompanied him and his entourage of unforgettable characters on his world travels and confrontation with danger. I dreamed about him and knew that someday I would get to meet those colorful characters living in places that evoked awe and wonder. My most prized possessions were the Tintin books I received from the library during the yearly Christmas party held for the children.
There was also a weekly magazine La Semaine de Suzette (Suzette’s Week) filled with fabulous stories, plays to be performed, knitting and sewing instructions, and weekly advice from a “tante Mad” helping little girls to resolve their problems. I became acquainted with Charles Dickens and all the tragic children in his novels. I often thought he was describing my world. But Melle. Vroemans steered me to happier topics with Little Women. She eventually allowed me into the adult section where I truly entered the magic of reading. It became my escape into other worlds and the rapture of knowing that I would never again be alone.
When I came to the States with my father when I was twelve years old, I brought the forty books my teacher and Melle Vroemans gave me as going away gifts. I still have the 1934 copy of La Semaine de Suzette and a 1947 copy of Tintin on my library shelves along with the writings of my mentor Michel de Montaigne and other notable minds such as Stefan Zweig, Primo Levi and my muse Patti Smith.
The View from my Window
It’s a cold Sunday morning in March. Outside my window, the trees span the parkway like forlorn sentinels. Their twisted branches resemble sculptures etched against the metal of the sky. Yesterday’s wind hung plastic bags instead of jewels onto wrought iron gates guarding the lawns of the apartment building where I live. Cars fly by in the service lane; riderless cars unaware of the passersby and the children crossing.
The radio announced snow. The more affluent women of the neighborhood wearing high heels stagger by draped in their fur coats. It conjures up images of slaughtered creatures on their backs. Joggers suddenly appear,sauntering like pop up dolls, then bicycles competing with traffic as the lights turn green.
The window of my room frames that world as if an animated painting. In the lawn, purple cabbages retained their color and sparkle against the rusted face of the earth. The Japanese maple is sleeping but remains the meeting place of wandering minnows waiting for the seeds I sowed. Snow is announced. A blanket of white will claim its territory. And in the warmth of my room, pressing my nose against the window pane I will welcome nature creating another story.
Montaigne and Stefan Zweig
During these times of uncertainty and colossal collusion by those in power, I find solace in the timeless wisdom of great thinkers. I consider none better than my mentor, the sixteenth century writer MONTAIGNE whose exquisite analysis of self in his collection of essays have sustained my faith in truth.
The following is taken from an essay dedicated to Montaigne by Stefan Zweig, a great and deeply perceptive visionary who understood the consequences of corruption and evil in the world. Stefan Zweig considered Montaigne as ” The one who remains standing in the chaos of the world.”
I will not translate it except for the first line, referring to power “ There is only one error and one crime: wanting to lock up the diversity of the world in doctrines and systems.”
The rest of the paragraph is déjà vu all over again. Montaigne who lived in the sixteenth century was a witness to intolerance, the inquisition and religious wars.
Stefan Zweig who lived in the twentieth century was a witness to the ignominy of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Reading in the original allows me to savor the clarity of ideas even more deeply because the language itself has a beauty and resonance that soothes and inspires.
Il n’est qu’une erreur et qu’un crime: vouloir enfermer la diversité du monde dans des doctrines et des systèmes. C’est une erreur que de détourner d’autres hommes de leur libre jugement, de leur volonté propre, et de leur imposer quelque chose qui n’est pas en eux. Seuls agissent ainsi ceux qui ne respectent pas la liberté, et Montaigne n’a rien haï autant que la “frénésie”, le délire furieux des dictateurs de l’esprit qui veulent avec arrogance et vanité imposer au monde leurs “nouveautés” comme la seule et indiscutable vérité, et pour qui le sang de centaines de milliers d’hommes n’est rien, pourvu que leur cause triomphe.
Tribute to Alan Vega
This is how I remember Alan Bermowitz (aka Alan Vega). We first met on the steps of Boylan Hall in Brooklyn College. He was in deep conversation with my friends Nicole, Evelyn and Mike. Mike was Italian and they were French. I came from Belgium ten years before with my father who had survived the horrors of WWII.
I was immediately smitten by the intensity of his presence, his good looks, his soulful eyes, the way he held his cigarette, and especially that radiating warmth that swept into me when we were introduced.
He had recently changed his major from astrophysics to art. It was in the Art Department that he met Kurt Seligman, the Swiss surrealist artist who left Europe to escape the upheaval of the Nazi regime. Seligman immediately recognized Alan’s talent and sensibilities, hovering over his development, considering him a prodigy.
Not having children of his own, Seligman was very protective of Alan, sharing his knowledge of not only art and artists he knew in Europe but also in his esoteric vision of existence. He invited him to his studio in upstate New York where they were able to spend hours discussing and unveiling all that Seligman knew and felt about art, music, mysticism and the occult.
Perhaps it was during those visits and discussions that Alan acquired his extensive awareness of surrealism, alternative music and movements that had captivated European artists, poets and musicians. When Seligman died in a tragic gun accident, Alan felt he had lost a father. But the ideas and influence of this great man were imbedded into his young prodigy who would take those ideas into another realm.
We were married and I became privy to a level of knowledge not readily available to someone who had just turned twenty- two. I came to know an intense yet mysterious young man who very early on was obsessed by man’s inhumanity to man. We had the Vietnam war to contend with and “times a changing” and Woodstock , all captivated by the mind and artistic soul of my husband.
He made me discover the works of Antonin Artaud, the creativity of Marcel Duchamp, and the eccentric 19th century writer Isidore Ducasse, known as Le Comte de Lautréamont.
We listened to music, sounds as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg, Varèse, Prokofiev, Nadia Boulanger, Bill Monroe, Waylon Jennings, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, and eventually Bob Dylan, the Stones and a cornucopia of sounds that established a time and a place. But what we agreed on was Elvis Presley who became the one who energized Alan in his musical quest for a sound he felt in his heart and soul.
He loved the art of the Renaissance, the colors, the subject matter and especially depictions of crucifixions, which eventually became a recurrent theme in his later drawings. The paintings of Rembrandt captivated him, not only the mastery of his renderings, but especially his connection with the every day life of people.
He loved Ghirlandaio’s “An Old Man and his Grandson” where he saw not the external appearance of the old man but his gentle expression and love. But the Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald we saw on a trip to Colmar, France, had a definitive influence on his later work . It is “an unforgettable vision of hell on earth with distorted figures and other worldly landscape surrounding a horrific crucifixion scene. You can see a distorted Christ splayed at the cross, his hands writhing in agony”. It is an image that remains imbedded in one’s mind.
I saw it in Alan’s performances, out on stage, open to the demonic tendencies of the crowd. I understood him connecting with a kind of suffering expressed in those paintings of Christ on the cross or St. Sebastian, an early Christian martyr, displaying his wounds. I understood the music and the figure of the artist absorbing the negative stuff of those out there who came to be entertained by the wounding, the blood, the anger.
I later understood the breakthrough. How it all came together, the colors of the Renaissance disguised in his early sculpture installations; bright neon lights lying on the floor, in a sort of random arrangement of chaos, objects trailing the smell of dumpsters rotting in some forgotten railroad yards. Yet in his drawings, there always is a self-portrait somewhere in the work, perhaps the artist, perhaps Christ, onlookers to the unfolding of madness.
In retrospect I believe that when we married he was marrying my pain, my surviving the Holocaust, and the tragedy of WWII. On our trip to Europe he sought out places and people who would relate their ordeals. He then spent days recording his images in a series of black and white drawings he called Opus Anus.
Whatever he expressed with his art, I felt he was expressing for me too.
We divorced at the end of the sixties. My world crashed in. But I rose from the ashes, burnished and more complete knowing that I had shared a moment of eternity with a special being. Thank you Alan Bermowitz. You are among the elected ones.
Travel is a profitable exercise. The soul is there continually exercised in noticing new and unknown things and I do not know a better school.
These inspirational thoughts have been with me ever since I came upon the writings of the sixteenth century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. And they accompanied me on my recent journey to Bali, known as the Island of the Gods. The thought of “noticing new and unknown things” fueled my imagination, as well as Elizabeth Gilbert’s fabulous stories in her now famous book: Eat, Pray, Love.
Having a most reliable guide and driver by the name of Gunung made it possible to be swept into a landscape that overwhelmed the senses. As soon as one leaves the grandeur of the newly refurbished Denpassar airport one is transported into the magical, mystical world of gods and goddesses inhabiting this exotic island. The clarity of the light imbues everything the eye beholds with intensity. Gargantuan statues of epic heroes loom over the scenery and are constant reminders of the sacred that fills the daily activities of the people.
The flowers; hibiscus, bougainvillea, poinsettia, jasmine, roses, begonias, water lilies and hydrangeas will be used as offerings before the myriad of temples that are seen everywhere. Incense fills the air and hovers, leaving veils of fragrance above exquisitely carved wooden doors, then curls along the stones leading to inner courtyards where the beloved elephant god Ganesh, son of Shiva and Parvati reigns supreme. Most of the inhabitants are Hindu and like everything else on this island, legends perpetuate the reverence for the sacred. It links ancient beliefs that all is one and all is imbued with spirit leading to a kind of animism that transcends definition.
In Ubud, the capital, I was swept into a world of scooters, mopeds, and motorcycles with entire families holding on to each other on the back seat. There are hardly any accidents because according to Gunung people look out for each other. It was difficult for him to believe the number of deaths that occur on the streets of New York. “ We have forgotten about the sacred,” I answered. Nevertheless, it was dizzying looking at cars coming in the wrong direction, but in Bali traffic flows as in England. You just have to remember to look on the left. It’s a mind shift.
When Gunung realized my apprehension he slowed down allowing the details of life on the streets to come into focus; a woman walking with a basket poised on her head, a man wearing a saffron colored vest worn over a colorful printed body cloth, a textile store with photos in the window of crouching bodies working the looms and toothless smiles welcoming the onlookers into their life of toil. And everywhere statues of Ganesh bedecked in flowers, flowers arranged on small trays as offerings to deities and greeting the shoppers entering the stores.
Another side of life reveals itself as well. Bony faces, haggard eyes, mangy dogs resembling hyenas resting against temple statues, their sad eyes looking out onto this moving colorful cadence of humanity.
It doesn’t take long to learn that there are people here who make $2 a day working in the rice fields and that part of the harvest goes to the owner. The feudal system still exists after all. Yet the crafts and artistic talent reveal a people devoted to beauty in all its aspects. The Agung Rai Museum of Art in Ubud has an expansive collection of masterful works of art and wooden sculptures. The epic story of the Ramayana is expressed through gifted dancers accompanied by the sound of the gamelan, the local musical instrument. And then to satisfy the lust of demanding tourists, the shops are filled with leather goods, metalwork, sculptures, colorful garments, paintings and trinkets to dazzle the beholder.
While beyond, out there in the luxury of the forest, tamarind and spice trees and dense clumps of coconut trees bejewel the landscape. And in the north, where the Bali Sea enchants the shore, one can take a boat at dawn to go meet the dolphins frolicking in the waves warmed by the rising sun.
I left Bali filled with gratitude for the kindness and love expressed by all the generous people I met along the way; Sandeh, the charming hostess of the B&B, and Wati, the Javanese cook who still shares her exquisite recipes with me via e-mail.
I give thanks to them all and especially to Ganesh, reigning lord of the Island of the Gods who allowed me a glimpse into the possibilities of paradise.
Springtime in the Desert
It has been long and ruthless this winter of 2014. The winds blasting frigid temperatures into the air, hurricanes devastating entire areas of land and the snow relentless and silent, throwing blankets of ice over the world. While underneath hurrying footsteps nature is sleeping, patiently nurturing seeds and the promise of new life.
This much anticipated event called the Vernal Equinox is due March 20, a date announcing the grand celebration about to take place. Spring is here and the world will once again be painted in exuberant colors
In March of 1976 I was living in Shiraz, Iran with my partner Ed. We had been teaching at the University and were anticipating the closing of schools to celebrate the Iranian New Year or Now-Ruz, welcoming the year 2537. We planned to visit several cities, most particularly the village of Mahan and the shrine of Shah Nematollah Vali, the 14th century Iranian mystic and poet.
We left Shiraz and headed east towards the desert cities of Kerman, Bam, Yazd and Mahan. Kerman was some 800 kilometers and 12 hours away from Shiraz, quite an undertaking for our little car, our Jyane, an Iranian version of the French 2CV Citroen. But lured by the history of these ancient cities we set out on the adventure accompanied by the hum of our mighty vehicle dashing into the enormous stretches of beige ripples of the Dashte-Lut desert. Then as if a magic wand had tapped into the horizon, villages appeared surrounded by mud walls crowned with blossoms and branches sparkling with tender new leaves. After a while I began recognizing almond trees, orange groves, wild pistachios with lavender heart shaped blossoms. I wondered how people survived here the rest of the year when everything is given up to the heat of a brutal sun. But this was springtime in the desert and all of nature was singing. Here and there villagers appeared and women carrying earthen jars to collect water from a well. They walked about in striking dresses, their tinseled shawls fired by the noonday sun as they sat by some stream washing their aluminum pots and pans with earth then dipping them into the stream to rinse them out.
We stopped for lunch next to a pistachio tree in bloom, their lavender hearts circled by white petals. We were overlooking a valley, above us a clear sky, and the stillness filled with echoes of the earth breathing.
The following poem was written in remembrance of Now-Ruz, 2537 in the Dashte-Lut desert, Iran.
My mind wanders Over her photographs A sequence of stories Recorded on the road Of time In a land where I gleaned Mental jewels And treasures In a country Once called Persia I remember A breath Whispering Spring is here I remember Pistachio trees Dressed In lavender veils Flapping their colors In the air I remember Almonds buds Transformed Into bridal embroidery Tumbling bouquets Against crumbling walls Cascades of flowers Covering the sand And branches Beginning to dance I remember faces,faces Silently watching The transformation Silent gazes Watching Springtime Painting the desert In Iran
Isfahan – My Valentine
Thirty-five years ago seems like the distant past but not when memories linger, not only in the mind but the heart. At certain times of the year, especially around the celebration of Valentine’s Day I am reminded of a great love I left behind in the legendary city of Isfahan when I lived in Iran.
Isfahan, the very name conjures up the Arabian Nights and the greatness of the ancient Persian Empire. Rulers and dynasties left their imprint on old stones transforming them into palaces, mosques, minarets, madrasehs (schools), gardens and bazaars with names that evoke the grandeur of the East and Shah Abbas one of its greatest rulers.
Names like the Maidan-i-Shah (the Royal Place), Masjid-i-Jam (the Friday Mosque), Chihil Sutun (Pavilion of Forty Columns), Bagh-i-Bolbol ( The Garden of the Nightingdale), and Ali Qapu, the glorious gate once the portal of the Shah’s palace, bewilder the imagination.I only stayed a few days to visit a friend. But that changed when I was introduced to a man I would never forget. The French have an exquisite expression that captures that moment: “le coup de foudre” lightning striking. I knew that when his green-gray eyes met mine the world shifted its axis.
We talked until the wee hours of the morning that first night and when the dawn began to clear the sky he asked if I would like to take a walk along the Zayandeh Rud, the river that could be seen a short distance from his house. We stopped on the way in a “ash-paz-khâneh”, a soup kitchen that opens up in the early morning hours for men going to work. It was still winter and the fragrance and warmth that emanated from the kitchen felt like some wondrous gift. When we reached the riverbank we took off our shoes and walked barefoot in the snow. I didn’t feel the cold, only the warmth of his being, the magic of the moment.
I left Isfahan not knowing that it would be for the last time. Although we met some time later, fate had other plans for us. He would remain the road not taken. Yet that moment in Isfahan seemed written in the stars.
…There was The Friday Mosque The Maidan-i-Shah Square Twisted lanes leading Into the old city Domed structures and façades Dressed in jeweled mosaics …There was a madrasah Nearby at the east end of the mosque And behind the West Iwan A winter hall …There also was The old bazaar filled with Fragrant spices The sound of hammers Against the copper pans The colors and flashes Of the Arabian Nights …There was The Maidan-i-Shah And the palace of Shah Abbas Where under the arches Rivulets of golden stalactites Were always in bloom …There were Curves and arabesques Bursting into space Chihil Sutun, Ali Qapu Wonders of the past Adorning the present …And then There was you And I One morning In Isfahan Walking along the river On the icy lace of the mist Clothing the cracked face Of the earth …And then There was you And the touch of your breath Against mine That eternal moment In time When your arms Wrapped me into The warmth of Your beating heart Before the rising dawn In Isfahan