Follow the adventure from the beginning

Friday, April 3, 2009

To Whom Much is Given: Part Two

Riga, Latvia

The guy from the bus. The one with the dark, messy hair and the thick Baltic accent. He’s unshaven and his teeth are the color of candy bars. He talks with a one-quarter smile, like he’s trying to sell you tickets for something and has no idea that you’ve already made other plans. My interaction with him is gum on a shoe. I keep thinking about it, over and over on the tip of my tongue. I can’t figure out why. Still sticking. And then, it’s clear. I’ve seen him before.

In Mexico, I live in a 10-unit apartment building. It’s a mountain tree house hanging half-way over a cliff.  And the only people who live there have somehow dropped something along the way. The retired couple below me fights everyday. The woman screams and tells her 75-year-old husband that he’s a no good slut-lover, sluts sluts sluts, and “I’ll kill you,” she yells, and then I hear metal clashing and know that she’s opened the knife drawer again. The gay couple on the fourth floor happily collects the extra onion peels from my refrigerator once each week. I think they make crafts with them. And the building administrator burns incense at an altar he’s built just outside his door – smoke clouding around the shrine’s Buddha statues, crucifixes, flowers and potato dolls. But this man from the bus to Frihamnen’s Harbor…

He’s exactly like the 55-year-old manic-depressive on the third floor of my apartment in Mexico. Both men have the same yellow smell and the same melted wax under their eyes. One late night, I have some friends at my place in Monterrey. The front door is unlocked because more people are on their way. I am preparing a drink, then changing the song on the stereo, then turning around and the 55-year-old neighbor is standing right there – right there in my kitchen. He’s hopped up on something and asking me for a fix. The men around me are immediately concerned. They stand quickly and put themselves between the intruder and me.

They ask him what he wants, how he got through the door, what on earth made him think it was appropriate to walk into a woman’s apartment without an invitation. He starts to stutter. He’s unable to explain himself – pupils dilated – nearly crying over the frustration he experiences when unable to communicate. He starts to push the boys, losing his cool now, frightening everyone – an alarm clock with no buzzer. My friends take him outside, throw him against a wall and make it very clear with fingers closed tight into rocks that he is to never bother me or make me feel uncomfortable again. Don’t even say hello.

“Hello you, gurl…”

And now I am on a ferry full of my neighbors, sailing to Latvia. Upon boarding, I read a sign translated from Latvian, to Swedish, and then English. It reads: ICE WARNING in capital block letters and gives a brief weather forecast for the night’s journey. I decide to order a glass of Merlot at one of the ship’s four bars, sit down and hum to a one-British-man band’s rendition of “We are the Champions.” And then I visit the cruise casino and feel lured to the black jack table where I win enough lats to pay for tomorrow’s lunch.

Next, I walk to the candy section of the duty free store onboard. Here I notice a surprising number of families with small children also traveling this evening. My lungs expand with relief. I quickly learn to find these kinds of parents when feeling concerned or unsafe. Simply sitting near them or walking close by helps me to pretend that they are tying ribbons in my hair and reading me stories too (for information on important bedtime stories, please see footnote H).

And then slowly, as the sea’s giant waves roll over and under, moving me to sleep in my single, windowless closet-cabin, the kids from the duty free shop push my uneasy neighbor out of mind. Memories from Mexico fade backward toward childhood, and I rest for nine hours at sea – back and forth, lullaby baby.

By the time we reach Riga’s port, I am ready to walk from the harbor to the city center where I will find St. Peter’s church (one of Riga’s skyline centerpieces, and a fully restored masterpiece after suffering fire damage during World War II), the Riga Cathedral in Dome Square, and the Swedish Gate built in 1698 during Swedish rule (the only remaining fortress entrance to Riga’s UNESCO World Heritage Old Town). I move from tight alleys to open squares, turning my map a full 360 degrees at every street corner. And it’s cold; more than in Stockholm the wind here whips around me, biting and kicking, and gives me bloody blisters on my chin.

All afternoon, I walk. People are everywhere, but somehow the city feels empty. The streets are frozen and the walkers whisper. Hardened, solid faces reflect in storefront windows. The women wear the highest heels I can think of on these cobblestone streets. And the men pull fur flaps from their hats over their ears. The city gives me a feeling I’ve never experienced before. It’s as if everyone were busy hiding, only they manage to do this while actually positioning themselves as plainly visible targets in the most public of midday places. I notice that the Latvians walk with an even pace, not too quick and not too slow, heads down against the snowy bursts. They all move just like this. All of them of course, except for the children. The young ones move erratically, running ahead and lagging behind, and I happily allow them to again push the foreignness of this place just out of my reach.

By the time I arrive at Riga’s Occupation Museum, documenting over 50 years of Soviet and Nazi presence in the region, I am ready for a break from the cold. I am unaware, however, that what I’ll find inside this building will numb me and turn me even more hollow than the below zero winter coming in off the Baltic outside. The journey from 1940 through 1991 will hurt and make me want to grab the children’s hands from just a few blocks ago and skip with them until our legs fall off. And it will help me to understand why the behavioral differences I notice on the street have less to do with age – adults acting one way and children acting another – and more to do with stark generational contrasts that presently define the country’s mood swing up or mood swing down.


Sometime around 9000 BC, after the Ice Age glaciers retreated, nomads settled the Baltic lands in order to collect and trade the region’s rich amber deposits. Latvia’s history was subsequently defined by a series of violent German crusades, and then occupation periods by Poland, Sweden, and eventually the Russian Empire. After World War I, Latvia seized a window of opportunity to declare independence from Russia on November 18, 1918. The country signed a peace treaty in which the USSR promised to never attack Latvia again, ever…

…until 20 years later when World War II started to frown it’s ugliness across all of Europe. The Soviets found creative and devilish ways to break their treaty with Latvia without violating the terms that had been set. The Russians bombed themselves just inside their western border and blamed Latvia. Then they accused Latvian political leaders of hosting secret meetings with Estonian and Lithuanian councils to conspire against the USSR. Grounds enough to invade the Baltic states in 1940.

And when they invaded they did it with jaws like a bear trap. In the first year alone, 30,000 men, women, and children disappeared forever – sent to work camps in Siberia and never heard from again. Nearly a thousand were shot, execution style, before they could even be dragged from their neighborhood. Children were imprisoned for singing Latvia’s national anthem or wearing patriotic colors. And the women were sent to special camps where male soldiers raped as they pleased.

The Soviets were so ruthless, in fact, that when the Nazis briefly fought them off and hosted their own occupation of Latvia from 1941 until sometime around 1944, the Latvians celebrated the German takeover because at least their inhumanity was somehow targeted, less random, and sickly ordered. The Nazis blamed Soviet cruelty on the Jews and by the time World War II was over, only 1,000 Latvian Jews remained.

When the Soviets retook Latvia in the WWII tug of war for control, they started burning things. Everything. Churches. Books. People. They killed senselessly and disappeared entire communities; one morning you wake up and your neighbors are gone and you have no idea why. The randomness of it all caused such terror, causes me such terror that I start to feel cold and ill.

It’s one thing to watch a documentary. And it’s altogether different to read a book. But when you touch the wood from a work camp bed, knowing that innocent prisoners were forced to hide the bodies of other dead inmates there – pretending that the deceased were only asleep – so that extra food could be harvested from the body... when you touch that wood you want to throw up on yourself.

Or when you see the miniature cloth dolls sewn by 25-year-old girls in Siberian camps, using hair from other dead prisoners, bark fiber, or scrap cloth. It’s like somebody takes both hands and squeezes your stomach until you’d prefer for it to pop. I see drawings of Latvian flags from families left to live in agony over the loss of their loved ones, and read patriotic love poems written from the deepest part of a man’s heart. Such love and such passion for home; and such unforgiveable violations of that sacred affection.

In Riga, history becomes my troubling present. I am affected by the violence of Latvia’s occupation years, but what actually troubles me more is the senselessness behind it all. I am lost between the neighbor that was shoved onto a train to Siberia and the other who was tied to the execution wall. I am wandering aimless between one girl’s guilt and another’s innocence. And more than anything, more than any other question this experience drives into my mind, I want to understand the senselessness that put me in America, born in 1984, so far from it all. A generation and an ocean apart.

I’m looking for an appropriate response. An inch of guilt wants to come up from my toes but I push it down. I think it’s something else. In Latvia, my guilt means nothing. It’s superficial and selfish, and it doesn’t come from the heart. For the most part, guilt dwells in our intestines, close to the dirtiest muck in our bodies.

I am hoping that the response I start to feel once safely aboard the ship again is something more permanent. I want it to last longer than three hours in a museum. I want it to drive me forward and change me. I want it to expect something from me. And there it is. This is what I take:

To whom much is given, much shall be expected.

It would be a crime against generations past with problems more complicated than mine, for me to sit down and let my life just happen. I can’t and I won’t. I will question things and take notes. I will open doors and walk through them. I will keep going, treading, and finding. I will feel the richness of every moment as deeply as I possibly can. And I will keep learning and pushing upward against gravity. All of this, so that other people’s struggle for a life that was given to me so freely will not be wasted. Ever. This much, I promise.




Footnote H: I’m eight years old in the first house my family has ever owned at 110 Mitchell Drive in Pittsburgh. It’s summer time and Grammy and Grandad have come to visit. Grammy tickles my back just before bed. The sun is still out, but an 8 o’clock bedtime is an 8 o’clock bedtime. My sister and I share a room. Every night we listen to stories. Tonight, after our back tickles, Grammy reads “The Funny Little Woman.” “Long ago, in Old Japan, there lived a funny little woman who liked to laugh, ‘Tee-he-he-he’ and who liked to make dumplings out of rice...” And when Grammy reads the laugh, she performs it. Her reenactment of the Japanese woman’s laugh is so high-pitched and so funny that my sister and I squeal with delight. Every night we ask her to read it over and over again. And she does, and it never gets old.


Once each week, Kimberly and I bring home a new book from the school library. If it’s a silly book, Dad gets to read from the edge of our beds. Our bedroom at 110 Mitchell is a cape-cod doll house, with window nooks and crawl-in crannies. This week, we’re working through a chapter book, “Sideways Stories from Wayside School.” Funny vignettes about Mrs. Gorf the third grade teacher who has a long tongue and pointed ears make my sister and I giggle and imagine our own world with such fantastic detail. Some nights my sister and I create equally whimsical stories and whisper them to each other long after Mom and Dad have turned out the lights.


And then there’s Shel Silverstein. His poems are so absurd that they can only make perfect sense to a kid. His story, “The Giving Tree,” teaches me to see the world from all different angles. Because see, when a tree makes friends with a boy (stay with me here), the relationship can be seen from many different places. First the tree offers the boy a branch to swing on, and then some fruit to help him grow strong, and then shade from the rain, and then lumber for a boat, and finally a stump to rest on. It’s a story about one relationship with many phases.

My family reads me stories over and over as a child, and they use the words from these tales to nourish and encourage me. And perhaps in these close head-in-their-lap moments, I am able to first feel the power of a good story and of those who tell them in my life. 


  1. As always, I'm blown away by your prose. I'll always remember my first experience with Wayside School... I'd love to quote your promise. Thanks for providing such rich material to end my week on a thoughtful note. I can't wait to read more.

  2. Tengo un nudo en la garganta y muchos deseos de seguir leyendo. Me dejaste una reflexión tan rica que no sé cómo empezar a agradecerte. Te mando un abrazo fuerte.