Friday, September 19, 2008


At so many levels, Donna’s comment to my last post made me laugh. Donna (whom I don’t know, btw) was so… beautifully precise in her depiction of a chance crossing of paths that I want to use this moment to say thank you. You know, of course, that next time you spot us, Ed will be just as disheveled as he was today. He wont hear it if you tell him that canary yellow will not hide old stains and that ripped shorts are… noticeable. And yet, it was a Friday afternoon and the sky was blue and the air was warm and so there you have it: the day was beautiful. Anyway, thank you, Donna, and all of you, for those sentences of good will and good humor that make their way to Ocean.

In other news: I spent a good many hours working, and thinking about stuff. In an unusual Ocean move, let me share some of this with you. I’ll start with this photo of a suspended windowwasher. Is there something singularly significant about it? Well, in my days, Poles often used allusions and allegories to help their story along. Let’s just say that the photo may be of help to the processing of the rest.

021 copy

In my mind, Poland was always a country divided. There were the provinces and the cities. The urban and the rural. And the rural, in my days, inevitably meant the economically depressed (with a few exceptions in the southern highlands, where Chicago money – or something! -- seemed to have perked up standards a bit). The urban, of course, also had their share of poverty, but so often it was a kinder poverty. Maybe it was because people had running water and access to decent schools and health care. Maybe.

The village I lived in as a young child was at the edge of an especially depressed rural landscape (the northeast). The accomplished farmers used horses and old wagons for transport. Others moved on foot. No one had a car then. You never saw a tractor. The women shoveled coal and wood into stoves and boiled water in old tinny pots for the inevitable supper of potatoes and sour milk.

My grandparents were outsiders. They were rural folk once, but not from this region. And they had lived abroad. Always poor, they now were better off than nearly everyone in the village. My grandmother had worked as a cleaning woman in the States. Now, in Poland, she had $100 in social security per month. She would never have to worry about food again.

When I outgrew my clothes, my grandmother passed them on to village people. In the years we had American clothes, the village people would sell them at the town markets. Oftentimes, we would see our old clothes on kids in the village and we would cringe. Privilege can be embarrassing.

But even though my grandparents were outsiders and I was a double outsider (I stopped living there year round at the age of three), I never felt shunned. Poverty of a desperate kind doesn’t breed resentment. It only breeds desire to get out of it and do better by yourself and your family. During my return visits, I sat on wooden chairs in front of warm stoves and answered questions about life in America. I was offered tea with sugar and I never turned it down.

The fact is, so many Poles, even those from the most depressed regions of the northeast, those who could not possibly understand the rule of law or the role of democracy or the Supreme Court or the two houses of Congress, regard this place of great wealth and purple mountain majesty as beautiful. A place they would love to touch, if only through the worn sweaters that we handed down to them.

That’s one thing.

Here’s another:

I have to say that I was part of the elite in the Poland of the late sixties (by the time I was a teen). I was educated, well-traveled and I lived in central Warsaw (a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment that my parents could now afford). I showered daily (rare!), used deodorant (unheard of!) and I worried about zits on my face. America had left its mark.

Still, in high school, I loved most everyone in my class. My friends were communists (Dorota!), anti-communist (Marcin!), Catholic (so many!), Jewish (Malgosia!) atheist (there must have been some!). Some were very poor. They knew this about themselves, but we didn’t know. In the Poland of my youth, wealth was nonexistant and so poverty did not stand out.

Oh, the dichotomies! It should not have worked. At the level of government, it did not work. But for us kids, it did.

We were a pack of teens who cared more about holding hands and kissing on park benches than hating each other for what we brought into the mix. If we spoke of hate, it was toward those who destroyed our country during World War II. Our parents drank tea to celebrate namedays (well, not mine, but they had issues that transcended politics). We, the young, the brave, went on hikes, pitched tents on river banks and farmers brought us cheese and milk for breakfast.

I have heard people say that in Poland people were civil to everyone because you never knew what the consequences would be, should you speak out against another person in the room. And so we developed a culture of respect. It may have been dishonest among our parents and elders, but for us, it was real.

I write all this because I live now in a place that is equally divided. Red, blue, north south, of color, white, Alaska and the east coast elite.

Back in Poland, I never heard any of it. The unlearned had respect for the learned, the rural wanted a home in the urban, the uneducated wanted schooling for their kid, the poor wanted a little of the wealth found abroad. The urban mass looked with lust toward the pastoral fields and the simple village life, the educated ate the same food in the same milk bar as the uneducated, the teens with access to things American shared with those who did not.

I kind of miss the time when I felt, at least in my own adolescent world, that we were all in this together, in pursuit of common goals for ourselves and our families. It was a good feeling. I wish our kids here were feeling it now.