Dipping my feet in Americana waters

“What is the purpose of your visit? And how long are you staying?” are the routine questions I hear from US Customs and Border control upon arrival. I have quite the collection of memories from these annual interviews. Waiting in line for my turn, trying to decide which customs guy looks the friendliest, preparing my answers… I even have a list of my preferred airports to arrive in (Minneapolis, Portland) and my least favorite (Los Angeles, New York)

This time I traveled through Chicago and it was a late night arrival. I think the officer was ready to go home and not interested in long chats. “Where are you going?” was all he asked and stamped my passport. Surely he saw how many US stamps there are already. I hesitated when the customs guy asked if I have any food items to declare but decided that Latvian chocolate bars I was bringing as gifts did not count. Chocolate is not food, right?

I have never stayed longer than three months and have never lived in the United States. Besides visiting family and friends and speaking engagements, there are many reasons to enjoy it. America (even the US part of it) is just so big. I have lost count of the places visited but the wish list keeps getting longer and longer. I have yet to see the wilderness of Alaska, the mountains of Colorado, the museums of Washington D.C., the Grand Canyon of Arizona, the Statue of Liberty (if I don’t count seeing it from the airplane) and the list goes on.

It is no secret that Europeans and Americans often differ in their views. I would describe our relationship as mutual ‘I really like you but you frustrate me. And at times annoy’. It is sometimes complicated but, no doubt, we care about each other’s opinion. How can we possibly avoid it when so much of American gene is of European descent?! My American friends ask me what Europeans think about their international image, policies and politics. My European friends ask me what is going on in America. Especially after this summer trip I am expecting a lot of questions.

When there are things that frustrate me about the US culture, I start countering it with the things I like. Frustrating ones first? This is a big nation and very self-sufficient. It annoys me how many Americans still do not realize how interconnected and interdependent the world is. For better or worse. Americans can be individualistic to the extreme. It annoys me when so many who have the means and money to travel, have no desire to visit other countries and learn about other cultures. It annoys me when people here complain about first-world problems and many think they are poor. I challenge their definition of ‘poverty’.

It annoys me when Americans talk about their government (as dysfunctional as it often seems) as tyrannical and authoritarian. Again I want to challenge this definition of ‘tyranny’ and ‘authoritative regime’. I was born in a tyrannical and authoritative system (the USSR) and I know the difference. Of course, there is abuse of power and corruption and deep rooted injustices but which embassies people line up to? Where do they expect to find liberty and opportunity and choice and free expression of themselves? For sure, the US is still at the top of the list where people want to immigrate.

And my list of positives? The number one is the acceptance and welcome of the immigrant and foreigner. Yes, it is not perfect but human beings are not perfect. Still, this land is beautiful because of its diversity of race, culture, religion, ethnicity, political opinion and ancestors. Few weeks ago there was an International Festival in Burnsville, Minnesota and it was great. Music, dances, cultural performances, food, kids activities. Cambodian, Indian, Thai, Pakistani, Somalian, Nigerian, Brazilian, Mexican… you name it. The last performers was a Latino band which got the whole crown dancing. And Latinos can dance! Just like Africans, their bodies just know how to sway with the rhythm.

Besides the beauty of the land, the diversity of its landscapes and its interesting history, I like the energy of this place. There are so many interesting ideas floating  in the air and people like to dream. I like the entrepreneur spirit and the innovations. I like the arts, music, books… I even like the optimism of Americans and the attitude of “why not?”, instead of “why?”

And going back to the freedom issue… I remember the first time I landed in the US and walked outside the airport in Seattle, Washington. I breathed in the air and it felt very different from what I had experienced growing up. It was not just a physical feeling of freedom, it was something deeper. I felt like I am appreciated just the way I am and I can express myself any way I want. And the policeman walking outside was actually a public servant and on my side.

One day I would like to read this poem on the Statue of Liberty with my own eyes:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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Most difficult peace with ourselves

My claim to fame – meeting and talking with Brian “Head” Welch from Korn. I was never a huge fan. I could not relate to their darkness and anger and even less to the destructive lifestyle, but few years ago I heard Head perform his solo album “Save me from myself“.

Talk about a story of redemption! Now two books later, re-joined with Korn and traveling the world with a very different kind of message – one of brokenness, hope and more humility – Head caused some controversy when he reacted emotionally to the death of his good friend, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. On Facebook page he wrote “Honestly, Chester’s an old friend who we’ve hung with many times, and I have friends who are extremely close to him, but this is truly pissing me off! How can these guys send this message to their kids and fans?! I’m sick of this suicide shit! I’ve battled depression/mental illness, and I’m trying to be sympathetic, but it’s hard when you’re pissed! Enough is enough! Giving up on your kids, fans, and life is the cowardly way out!!!

I’m sorry, I know meds and/or alcohol may have been involved, I’m just processing like all of us and I know we are all having some of the same thoughts/feelings. Lord, take Chester in your arms and please re-unite him with his family and all of us one day. Be with his wife and kids with your grace during this difficult time.” Later he added, “I didn’t mean to sound insensitive about Chester. Just dealing with a range of emotions today. Love you Chester. I’m pissed that you did this, but I know this could have been me back in the day after getting wasted one night.”

That’s just it. It could have been Brian Welch, it could have been me, it could be many people I know. We come from very different worlds and backgrounds but there is something we all experience and struggle  with. The ability to forgive yourself or even harder – to love yourself. Self-hate and self-rejection, in whatever form it comes, is one of the most common human experiences. I have never had to battle a serious depression, mental issues and have been fortunate to avoid lots of self-destruction but I do know what I have felt or thought many times looking in the mirror or reflecting on my innermost thoughts and motives and past actions.

There is something else Head and I have in common – we are pursuing peace with ourselves, others and God. Started following the way of Jesus in very different circumstances but with the same desperate need – to be saved from ourselves. To be saved from my pride, selfishness and self-loathing among other things. We want peace in the world but this personal inner peace is the most elusive. To love your neighbor is often easier than loving yourself. To love yourself just as you are because you are loved by Someone who knows you even better yourself. To forgive yourself as you forgive others and are forgiven.

I was heartbroken when I heard of Chris Cornell‘s (of Audioslave and Soundgarden) death in May. Why did I cry and listen to his songs again? Besides coming from the grunge scene, why did it feel so personal? Yes, I liked all the bands he was in and I absolutely loved his vocal talent. More than that – I was touched by the lyrics Chris wrote. He had a special gift for raw poetry. I think of all “Audioslave” fans who have sung along these lines “You gave me life, now show me how to live… And in your waiting hands, I will land, and roll out of my skin”

Yesterday I was driving across the state of Minnesota and all radio stations were playing Linkin Park. The one I did not hear and my favorite is “What I’ve Done“. I really like the official video and the lyrics,

“So let mercy come
And wash away
What I’ve done

I’ll face myself
To cross out what I’ve become
Erase myself
And let go of what I’ve done

Put to rest
What you thought of me
While I clean this slate
With the hands of uncertainty

I start again
And whatever pain may come
Today this ends
I’m forgiving what I’ve done”

I pray for comfort to those who mourn the death of their idols, friends, family, parents, sons, daughters! And I understand the overwhelming emotions Head expressed when you want to say to dear friends… I don’t wish you to “rest in peace”. I wish you to “live in peace”.

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Brian “Head” Welch from Korn and Sunny from P.O.D. sharing about their fears, hopes and faith

 

A few thoughts on World Refugee Day

Simply overwhelming statistics. It is year 2017 and there are estimated 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, including 21 million refugees worldwide. According to UNHCR, the top three nations where refugees come from are Syria (5,5 million), Afghanistan (2,5 million) and South Sudan (1,4 million). People are driven out of their homes by conflict, persecution, environmental disasters, famine and extreme poverty. More than half of them are children.

How do you look at these statistics? The numbers are too large for my brain to compute. My first thought is that Latvia has a population of 2 million and it is so small in comparison. These numbers are also people I have met, stories I have heard and lives of my friends that have been changed and disrupted in profound ways.

June 20 is World Refugee Day. Not only a reality in far away places, it is here and now. Even in Latvia. On one hand it has been much discussed topic but still there is so much ignorance, indifference and misunderstanding. For example, you would think that all of the world’s refugees have come to Europe where in fact the top hosting countries are Turkey (almost 3 million), Pakistan (1, 4 million), Lebanon (1 million), Iran, Uganda and Ethiopia.

For many years I was working with and helping refugees in Thailand and often getting frustrated, even angry at local people for being so prejudiced and selfish. Now back in Latvia, I feel the table has been turned and now my own nation is facing the test of compassion, sympathy, generosity and kindness. The test is so small compared to what others are facing. Latvia is neither in the direct path of this refugee movement nor is it the common destination. Where is Latvia, right?

If not for my other commitments, I would go and volunteer at one of the refugee centers in Greece or Italy where the situation is much more critical. When I meet people who have sacrificed their time, resources and even health to serve on the Greek islands, I thank them because they are doing what many cannot and others will not.

There are things that make me proud to be a Latvian and others that make me ashamed. And on the generosity and hospitality side we still have a long way to go. We still feel like we don’t have enough and we still feel threatened. More obviously – we are not a trusting society. For good reasons which are too many to explain here but it is the one trait which really infects my beloved country and which needs to be healed and overcome. What can help us to become more compassionate and trusting? What and who can open our eyes to see how much we have?

As a Christian, I could give a long sermon about the basics of my faith and what it should do for practical life in community. Of course, I could go on and on about Jesus as the greatest revelation of God’s good and loving will. And I can give lots of wonderful examples of church communities that have embraced refugees and are doing all they can to be the good neighbors. But I can also give examples and point to the fact that there is as much ignorance and prejudice in the church as there is in the whole society.

Today I want to give thanks to a grass-roots civil society initiative in Latvia which started with some passionate people and then became a Facebook group and still works as a small (maybe not so small?) but very active and hands-on movement of people who care. The group is called “I Want to Help Refugees” (Gribu Palīdzēt Bēgļiem) and it has helped the refugees arriving in Latvia in so many ways – from basic needs like food and clothing and doctor visits to special events celebrating cultural diversity and taking children to movies.  (Yes, there is government assistance and programs but it does not go nearly far enough to help these families start a new life in a foreign country).

Final thought on practical steps? Let’s start by saying these simple words “Welcome to my country” and then show that we mean it! Do to other’s what you would like them do to you!

Syrian refugees watch as Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond visits Al Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan

Photos from internet

Latvian:

Tā ir drausmīga statistika. 2017. gada vidus, un šobrīd pasaulē ir apmēram 65 miljoni cilvēku, kuri spiesti atstāt savas mājas un arī dzimtenes. To skaitā ir 21 miljons bēgļu. Saskaņā ar ANO datiem, Sīrijas karš vien ir licis vismaz 5,5 miljoniem cilvēku doties bēgļu gaitās. Visā pasaulē cilvēki bēg no kara, vajāšanām, apspiestības, vides katastrofām, bada un galējas nabadzības.  Vairāk kā puse no bēgļiem ir bērni.

Pirmais jautājums – kā man reaģēt? Normālām smadzenēm tie skaitļi ir vienkārši par lielu; mēs nespējam to ‘sagremot’. Man prātā ienāk doma, ka Latvijā ir 2 miljoni cilvēku, un pašreizējo pasaules nelaimju kontekstā mēs visi būtu bēgļu gaitās. Visi bez izņēmuma. Vēl es domāju par saviem draugiem dažādās pasaules malās. Tās ir viņu dzīves, kas ir pilnībā izmainītas un izjauktas. Draugi Taizemē, kuri bēga no etniskām tīrīšanām un militārā režīma Birmā. Draugi Ēģiptē, kuri bēga no reliģiskiem un etniskiem konfliktiem Sudānā. Mani draugi no Sīrijas, kuri atstāja savu dzīvokli iztukšotu un aizslēgtu, atvadījās no vecākiem, atstāja savu biznesu un ziedoja visus iekrājumus, lai bērniem būtu drošāka un labāka nākotne.  Viņi jau vairākus gadus dzīvo Rīgā.

20. jūnijā tika atzīmēta Pasaules Bēgļu diena. Agrāk tā asociējās ar problēmām kaut kur tālu pasaulē. Tagad tas ir aktuāli šeit un tagad, arī Latvijā. Kaut gan temats ir ‘karsts’, apspriests un debatēts, joprojām ir daudz aizspriedumu un arī vienaldzības. Piemēram, attieksme, ka Eiropa nes vislielāko slogu, palīdzot bēgļiem, vai ka visi bēgļi grib braukt šurp. Lielākā daļa bēgļu, kā visos laikos, grib braukt mājās, bet diemžēl tas nav iespējams. Turcijā uzturas apmēram 3 miljoni bēgļu, Pakistānā vairāk kā miljons, Libānā miljons, tālāk seko Irāna, Uganda un Etiopija.

Otrais jautājums – ko darīt? Vairākus gadus dzīvojot un strādājot brīvprātīgo darbu uz Taizemes un Birmas robežas, kur palīdzēju bēgļiem no Birmas, es bieži saskāros ar vienaldzību, arī korupciju un pat nežēlību pret bēgļiem no vietējo iedzīvotāju puses. Esmu gan dusmojusies, gan bēdājusies. Atpakaļ Latvijā, es atrodu sevi otrā pusē starp “vietējiem”. Mana valsts un mani tautieši piedzīvo līdzīgu līdzcietības un solidaritātes pārbaudījumu. Salīdzinot kaut vai Itāliju un Grieķiju, mums šis pārbaudījums un izaicinājums ir ļoti mazs. Latvija nav īsti pa ceļam, un arī nav nekāds ‘sapņu galamērķis”. Kas ir Latvija, un kur tāda atrodas, vai ne? Turklāt ziņa jau drošvien aizgājusi pa neoficiālajiem kanāliem, ka bēgļi te netiek gaidīti, un ka izredzes uzsākt Latvijā jaunu un stabilu dzīvi ir diezgan niecīgas. Mani sīriešu draugi ir ļoti pateicīgi, jo saņēmuši ļoti lielu atbalstu un palīdzību no draudzes, bez kuras viņi te vienkārši nevarētu izdzīvot. Kaut vai atrast dzīvokli, ko īrēt, kad lielākā daļa noliek klausuli vai aizbildinās, kad uzzin, ka ģimene ir no Sīrijas.

Es lepojos ar savu latvietību un reizēm par to kaunos. Viesmīlība un dāsnums nav mūsu stiprā puse. Mums ir tik spēcīgs ‘nabadzības’un ‘upuru’ sindroms. Mums liekas, ka pašiem nepietiek, ka mums pašiem vēl tik daudz kā trūkst (jo nedzīvojam kā norvēģi!). Mēs esam ļoti bailīgi un vēl vairāk – esam sabiedrība, kas neuzticas un uz visu skatās ar aizdomām. Lai gan zinām vēsturiskos iemeslus šīm aizdomām, skepsei un neuzticībai, mēs turpinām ar to būt ‘saindēti’, un tas mūs pamatīgi bremzē.

Es varētu rakstīt garus sprediķus par šo tēmu – ticības pamatuzstādījumiem un to praktisko pielietojumu ikdienas dzīvē. Mans galvenais piemērs tam, kāda izskatās Dieva mīlošā un taisnīgā griba sabiedrībā, ir pats Jēzus. Un es varu minēt daudzus piemērus, kā individuāli kristieši un draudzes visā pasaulē, arī Latvijā, palīdz un dara to, kas labiem līdzcilvēkiem un kaimiņiem pienākas. Bet varu minēt arī daudz piemērus, kā mūsu dzīvēs un draudzēs ir tikpat daudz aizspriedumu kā pārējā sabiedrībā. Runājot par bēgļiem, “kristīgo vērtību” karogs Latvijā ticis vicināts maz.

Tomēr Latvijā ir daudz “labo samariešu”, un parasti šie cilvēki nenonāk ziņu slejās. Jo mēs jau zinām, ka pie mums uzmanības centrā ir negatīvais. Šoreiz gribu teikt milzīgu ‘paldies’ konkrētai cilvēku grupai – biedrībai “Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem”, kuru var atrast arī feisbukā. Šie domubiedri ir paveikuši ārkārtīgi daudz, un viņi ir pilsoniskās sabiedrības daļa, kas nesēž un negaida, ko darīs valdība vai kāds cits, bet prasa – ko darīšu es pats?

Daži praktiskie soļi? Būt labāk informētiem. Dzīvojot Taizemē, es visu laiku saskāros ar faktu, ka taizemieši nezināja, kas notiek viņu kaimiņvalstī, un kāpēc cilvēki no turienes bēg. Parasti komentārs bija tāds, ka “tā ir vienkārši slikta valsts.” Es galīgi neesmu eksperte cilvēktiesību, juridiskajos, ekonomikas, drošības, migrācijas, globalizācijas, politikas un citos jautājumos, bet es zinu pietiekami daudz un  saprotu, ka mums šobrīd stipri dalās viedokļi par to, kā attiekties un ko darīt, un kādas ir problēmu saknes. Protams, ka visi vēlas, lai kari un katastrofas beigtos, vai vēl labāk – vardarbīgi konflikti nesāktos.  Bet, ko darīt līdz tam “miera”laikam?

Mums jāmācās būt atvērtiem, un darīt to, kas ir mūsu spēkos. Mēs nevaram palīdzēt visiem, bet it sevišķi tiem, kuri nonāk pie mūsu mājas durvīm, mēs nevaram teikt “Ej uz nākamo māju, varbūt tur tev atvērs. Kaimiņi ir bagātāki un izpalīdzīgāki”. Un vēl – viesmīlība un atvērtība neattiecas tikai uz nelaimē nonākušiem cilvēkiem, kas devušies bēgļu gaitās. Tas attiecas uz visiem, kuri pārceļas uz dzīvi Latvijā darba, studiju, mīlestības, ģimenes, intereses un dažādu citu iemeslu dēļ. Prāta Vētra dzied angliskajā versijā “Welcome to My Country”, bet mums pašiem tie vārdi neiet tik viegli pār lūpām vai no sirds. vai  Esiet sveicināti Latvijā!

Portland and London united in grief and love

A skateboard. Something that is simply fun even though I cannot find my balance. A bakery. Somewhere to go if you have a sweet tooth like me. A bridge. Something that connects and helps you to get from one side to another. Borough Market. I get hungry just thinking about all the delicious food in that area.

I never thought these things would bring tears to my eyes. Another week, another terrorist attack. Even for those of us whose communities have not experienced this kind of trauma and grief, it has become a tragic norm to read the stories (Manchester, Cairo, Kabul, Portland…), to watch the videos and to be deeply disturbed and heartbroken. Last week during the horrific attacks on London Bridge and around the Borough Market I was in Latvia and there was and still is so much sadness here. Yes, there have been too many of these kind of evils in Europe, Middle East, Asia, USA, Africa and elsewhere but this one felt even more personal and shocking.

Not only because so many Latvians have visited London and for many of us it is one of our favorite global cities that is so beautiful and friendly and fascinating. Of course, many also have friends and family who live and work in London now, including my own brother and his family. I know the streets they walk, the trains they take, the pubs they hand out in and the shops they favor.

The other tragedy that broke my heart was the horrible attack on the city commuter train in Portland, Oregon where on May 26 two guys got stabbed to death because they intervened on behalf of two young girls who were being insulted because of their ethnicity and religion. The attacker was yelling that “Muslims should die” and the girls should get out of “his country”. Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche died from their injuries when they were stabbed in the neck and the attacker was arrested while he was still yelling hateful slurs and acting proud of his actions that “that’s what liberalism gets you.”

And this happened in another one of my favorite cities (I admit I am a city girl). If I lived in the US, I would want to live in Portland. Yes, it rains there a lot (so it does in London) but it makes everything so green and beautiful. The rivers and the valley is gorgeous and Portland has been called the “City of Roses” for a long time because its climate is ideal for growing roses.

There is so much in common between these two recent tragedies and the way these cities are now united in grief. On the side of hate and exclusion, there was extreme views, violence, attacks by knife and stabbing anyone who gets in the way or tries to defend the innocent. In both places the attackers were yelling that they are defending some kind of higher cause and exposing their views who deserves to live and who deserves to die. Who is in “my country” or “us” and who is “them”. In both cases believed they were “righteous”.

On the side of love and embrace, there were people who were living one of those simple and everyday moments of life. Whether it was coming home from work on a full train or enjoying a nice summer weekend and hanging out with friends, lovers and family. And then there were the “ordinary” heroes. In Portland it was the guys who tried to de-escalate the situation and stood up to protect the girls. In London, there was the Spanish guy, Ignacio Echeverria, who tried to help a woman, used the only things he had in his hand – his skateboard – and lost his own life. Or the brave Romanian chef, Florin Morariu, who hit one of the attackers with a crate and then helped 20 people to hide in his bakery.

There were many more heroes and most will remain unknown and to them we are so grateful. To the people who experienced these horrors and will have the memories for the rest of their lives, we are so sorry. And to those who lost their loved ones, words cannot express…

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Photos from internet

 

 

Helpful or harmful to talk about painful national past?

This is a common and valid question. When do the wounds, losses and memories from time ago truly become things of the past? When does it heal and hurt no more? When does dwelling on the past become harmful and we get stuck in it? Increasingly many people in my global circle of friends are reflecting on these issues.

I was giving a lecture on principles of reconciliation and one Swiss student in Latvia asked me, “Why do we need to talk about these tragic things that people and nations have done to each other? Doesn’t this just stir the pain and keep it alive? Doesn’t it actually harm good relations and infect the present situation?” Again a very good question most often coming from the youth who are 25 and under. When I was 18 or 20, I would have asked the same thing as I often felt that the older generations talked too much about the past. I only had the future to worry about.

In my case, with time and experiences around the world came a desire to see the bigger picture and also a realization that actually we do inherit national memories from the generations before us. We claim that it is “not our problem” and that we are “not responsible”. But we look at the reality around us and see that ‘yesterday’ still has a strong effect on ‘today’. And then we start to take ‘tomorrow’ more seriously because it cannot be taken for granted.

I use the word ‘yesterday’ because in this part of the world we live in very young nations. I don’t mean cultures or ethnic identities because there is long history here but many of our republics are celebrating 100 year anniversaries. Republic of Latvia is preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary on November 18, 2018 and Estonia on February 24, 2018. Lithuania has a much longer history of statehood but on February 16, 2018 it will celebrate 100th anniversary of the Restoration of the State.

100 years is not a very long time. I did not know it when I was a teenager but I understand it now because my grandmother is only 5 years younger than the Republic of Latvia. And her generation is still around with their memories and stories and things to teach and pass on. In this life span there have been exciting highs of free society, high achievements, big dreams and deep despair of war, bloodshed, holocaust, ethnic cleansing. 50 of those years Latvia and Estonia and Lithuania have been occupied by a Soviet regime and forced to live under a system which was foreign and destructive. Not just physically, but psychologically, emotionally and socially.

Metaphorically speaking, we still feel this Soviet system poison in our ‘veins’ and we need to flush it out if we want to be healthy. How? Part of it is calling things their real names. For example, the Soviet times taught people not to trust anyone and how to become hypocrites. Saying one thing but thinking another and then doing something else entirely. The private and public lives often did not match but everyone knew it and pretended. The system was good at pretending. And we still find it hard to trust anyone and we still struggle with lots of corruption because our psyche has been so corrupted.

Another thing we need to flush out is “us” and “them” mentality. Again, the Soviets were masters of this art and they had good disciples. “International” by name but “chauvinist” by nature. And history was so politicized and used for propaganda and brainwashing that we actually could not have an honest truth seeking, grieving, forgiving, apologizing and reconciling.

So, you see we are dealing with questions which should have been addressed before but were delayed. The first step in any reconciliation process is truth seeking. If there is a conflict, pain or resentment, it is a given that something happened. What happened? Why did it happen? How did it effect people? This part of the homework is super hard. Many people want to skip over it completely. One journalist asked, “Can we have reconciliation first and then try to find out the truth?” Sorry to disappoint but it is not possible. That would be called “avoiding the topic” or “sweeping things under the carpet”. And that is exactly what most people and societies do because it seems much easier.

(I am not talking about situations where there is real violence and war and brutal conflict. Of course, you first need to have a ceasefire and stop killing each other and let things calm down before you can even address these deep issues. The basic need is always to preserve people’s lives and take care of their basic need like food, shelter and safety. You do not hold Truth and Reconciliation Committees in a battle zone.)

Last week I wrote about a Reconciliation event in Riga. There I had a conversation with a Latvian whose ethnic background is Russian. He is 21 years old and he was completely convinced that “if we truly want to have better relations with each other, we need to start by apologizing. If we only come together and talk about the facts but take no personal responsibility, we will get nowhere. When we come together, we need to ask each other for forgiveness.”

He wants a good and long future for Latvia and all people in Latvia and for those who will come to live here. So do I. The same for Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians… and you can add your country to the list. This is exactly why we need deep and honest reflections about ‘yesterday’ if we desire a good ‘today’ and better ‘tomorrow’. And start apologizing and forgiving where needed.

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Spring time in Rīga (photos from personal archive)

 

Time to bridge the chasm of dividing memories in my own nation… Latvia

Does time heal all wounds? Few months ago I was asked by an American how much more time we need in Latvia to bridge our ethnic and historical divides and to have a real sense of ‘one nation’. 30 years? 40 years? More? Wait a few decades when the older people will be gone and the personal memories will fade and the conflicting versions of history will cease or not be as painful?

And I shook my head, “No, I don’t want to wait  and see what happens.” What if nothing happens? What if the younger generations pick up the same hurts and stories and don’t want to hear the ‘other’ side? And what about my generation who grew up with one foot in the ‘past’ of the USSR and the other foot in the ‘present’ of free and democratic society? We were told that we can finally dream of a better future for Latvia and this is exactly what I have been doing.

In Latvia, May 9 is a tense and strange day. People either celebrate, remember, speak against or simply try to ignore it. Most of Europe commemorates  May 8 as the date when WWII ended in Europe but in most countries that used to be part of the USSR, May 9 is celebrated as Victory Day (to understand this better, follow the link), but for the Republic of Latvia it did not mark the end of WWII because the Nazi troops and regime were exchanged with the Soviet troops and regime which only ended in 1991. Because of our history, geography and people, we now have two days, two stories and two memories.

I cannot do justice to all nuances and complexities in such a short blog. For thousands of ethnic Russians (and Ukrainians, Belorussians and others), this is a very emotional and important memory which brings a lot of pride and gratefulness for the sacrifice of previous generations. Likewise for thousands and thousands of ethnic Latvians, an image of a Soviet soldier brings up pain, bitter memories and grievances over previous generations. Latvians simply stay away from May 9 commemorations.

So, here we are… and what can we do?! If you follow my blog, you know that I am a strong believer in restoration and reconciliation. Each generation has choices to make. We cannot change the past and we are also not responsible for everything that took place before our time. But we are responsible for today and tomorrow. My choice is healed, diverse, united and respectful society.

Lately I meet more and more people who make the same choice and do their part (often very personal and difficult) to build the bridges. I am a Latvian and I also carry some pain of my family who suffered under the Soviet regime. My great grandparents were arrested and sent to Siberia because, as landowners and farmers, they were the class enemy. I look at the few old photos which my grandmother received from them while they were living and doing hard labor in Irkutsk region, Russia and I get very emotional.

My great grandmother had lost her mind while in exile and as a little child I remember she used to swear in Russian. She used bad words like ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ and ‘fascist’. When I would repeat them, my parents scolded me but when I told them where I heard it, they went silent or tried to explain to me that granny was crazy. Later I understood that her fragile and broken mind remembered the names she had been called in Russia.

You see why my first introduction to Russian language was not a very positive one but it is not anymore. I can speak Russian, I learned it in school and I loved it because I could watch all my favorite cartoons and films in Russian and my parents could not use a ‘secret’ language anymore when talking about us, kids.

See, I have to do my own homework when I talk about this stuff. I am grateful for everyone who is doing it or has already completed. People who have listened, who have forgiven, who have apologized, who have accepted the “other” and who have moved on to the bridge. I think and I hope that I am on this bridge, too.

This week there was an event “8/9: Words crossing the gap of memories” at the Anglican Church in Riga organized to promote reconciliation. Reconciling our memories, our narratives, our communities, our people. There were prayers and Bible readings and two very personal speeches. One of them was quite extraordinary and I will translate few of the words here. It was written and read by Denis Hanov, a professor and Doctor of Humanities, a Latvian whose ethnicity is mixed Russian/Ukrainian and mother tongue is Russian.

He started by saying, “Tonight I will speak about things that I have been thinking about for a long time. More precisely, for 20 years I feel that I need to talk to be able to understand what is happening to me here, in this land, in Latvia.”

I hope to translate the whole speech in English and include it in another post, but let me conclude with his words, “Can pain form our future or is it possible to break it? Pain cannot be cancelled, cannot be forgotten and cannot be hidden, but it can be overcome. (…) Therefore tonight I decided, by my own initiative with encouragement of many friends and skepticism of others, to bury the pain of 20th century and to create my personal bridge to cross the gap. I will build this bridge according the the highest standards of safety – I will try to hear others and ask for forgiveness.”

And Denis did. He asked forgiveness and he asked to be heard.

I heard him and I hope that I will be heard, too. I don’t have time to wait 50 years. Latvia does not either.

To be continued…

Siberia

My great grandfather Jānis Kūda (bottom left) doing hard labor near Irkutsk, Russia around 1950

Latvian:

Vai laiks dziedina visas brūces? Pirms kāda laika man viens amerikānis jautāja, cik ilgs laiks vēl vajadzīgs, lai Latvijas sabiedrība tiktu pāri savām sāpēm un sašķeltībai. Paaudžu maiņa? 40 gadi? 50 gadi? Kad visi vecie nomirs, un visiem būs tikai vēsture, varbūt tā izbālēs, un vairs nevienam nesāpēs?

Man tas izklausījās briesmīgi. Es negribu gaidīt, man nav laika gaidīt, kas notiks. Ja nu nekas nenotiek? Ja nu nekas nemainās? Vai arī paliek sliktāk? Varbūt jaunā paaudze vienkārši pārmantos šos stāstus un sāpes un konfliktējošo skatu gan uz vēsturi, gan uz tagadni, gan nākotni. Un kā ir ar manu paaudzi? Kas uzaugām ar vienu kāju PSRS “pagātnē” un ar otru kāju Latvijas Republikas “tagadnē”. Kur beidzot varam sapņot par labākiem laikiem un labāku nākotni Latvijai un visiem cilvēkiem Latvijā. To es arī cenšos. Gan sapņot, gan darīt.

8. maijā Anglikāņu baznīcā Rīgā notika samierināšanai, nožēlai un piedošanai veltīts pasākums. “Atceroties 2. pasaules kara traģēdijas un piedzīvojot pretnostatītas atmiņas par to, meklēsim saprašanos un izlīgumu.  Pasākums krievu un latviešu valodās.” Bija lūgšanas, bija Bībeles lasījumi, un bija divas ļoti dziļas un personīgas runas. Un es nolēmu, ka vienu no šīm runām iekļaušu šajā blogā. To nevar sagriezt, to jālasa pilnībā. Tā ir uzruna no Denisa Hanova, RSU komunikāciju fakultātes profesora, kurš pats dzimis jauktā krievu/ukraiņu ģimenē, un kura dzimtā valoda ir krievu.

“Nožēla un cerība – Deniss Hanovs

Šovakar es teikšu to, par ko domāju jau vairākus gadus. Precīzāk, 20 gadu garumā es jūtu, ka man ir nepieciešams runāt, lai saprastu kas notiek ar mani šeit, šajā zemē, Latvijā.
Viss sācies ar to, ka es piedzimu 1977. gadā valstī, kura nedrīkstēja pastāvēt, jo bija varas spēļu, politiskā ārprāta, cilvēku bezspēcības, baiļu, moku, represiju, nodevības un akluma rezultāts. Es piedzimu Padomju Latvijā, kas tapa kā svešas varas projekts.
Tīņa vecumā vēlme studēt augstskolā izmeta mani ārā no Pļavnieku guļamrajona noslēgtās vides, no noapaļotās vienaldzības pret 20. gs. vēstures lūzumiem un to salauztajiem cilvēkiem.
Tā es atklāju ka par spīti tam, ka krievu kultūras šedevri ir kļuvuši par Eiropas kultūrmantojuma daļu, krievu valoda trolejbusā var pēkšņi likt kādai grumbainai sejai sarauties nepatikā, skumjās un tam var sekot dusmīga piebilde kas man nesaprotamā veidā ir saistīta ar manu tautību – krievs. Ilgstoši negribēju pieskarties šādai sejai un noskaidrot kāpēc cilvēkam var sāpēt, kad viņš dzird manu valodu. Neviens arī necentās man to skaidrot, klusēja vai vienkārši nezināja – nācās skaidrot pašam.
Vēlme noskaidrot citu sāpes un to cēloņus pati veidoja vidi, laiku un telpu, kas pavēra man durvis uz līdz šim nezināmo.
Latvijas Kultūras akadēmija – šauri klosteru gaiteņiem līdzīgi koridori, pavisam jauni studiju priekšmeti, savādāka Latvijas vēstures interpretācija un arī mana paša dalība sarunās, noklausoties stāstus, izlasot atmiņas, apmeklējot izstādes – tas viss lika man saprast, ka arī mana klātbūtne var būt sāpju avots. Mana un manas ģimenes klātbūtne var
sāpināt. Izrādās, ka sāpes ir pārmantojamas, tāpat kā vecas grāmatas, vēstules vai slimības.
Tad es sapratu, ka Čaikovska Oņegins vai Tolstoja Nataša sadzīvo ar sētnieku īstenoto stučīšanu, ar nāvi un mokām cietumu pagrabos, ar neaprakstāmiem vergu darbiem nometnēs, arī ar ilgstošām, klusām bailēm glabāt atmiņas par tuvākajiem, kuru līķi bija izmesti ceļā uz Sibīriju. Par to man atgādina tukšie koka vagoni dzelzceļa stacijās Latvijā, veco cilvēku klusās asaras vai pāris fotoattēli – viss kas palika pāri no iznīcinātas dzīves pirms 1940 gada.
Kāds man ar to visu sakars?
Netiešs, un pavisam tiešs – jo nakts vidū mājās iebrukušie zaldāti, NKVD virsnieki iznīcināja 20.gs. cilvēku atmiņas un sakropļoja dvēseles, krieviski izkliedzot pavēles, lamājoties, rakstot viltotus protokolus, liedzot brīvi domāt, cenzējot, bojājot zinātniskās karjeras, neļaujot izbraukt no valsts, publicēties. Kopš tā laika daudziem vārdi “krievs”, “krievu”, “Krievija” ir baiļu un naida sinonīmi. Man tas jāpieņem, jo tāda ir traumētas sabiedrības realitāte. Latvijā naktīs, cietumos, kolhozos, darba vietās, parkos, universitātē 1940. gadā un pēc tam vēl pusgadsimta garumā nāve, fiziska un psiholoģiska vardarbība runāja krievu valodā, mainīja ielu nosaukumus, aizliedza iepriekšējo topogrāfiju, aizvietojot to ar nevienam nepazīstamu un nevajadzīgu revolucionāru biogrāfijām.
Man ir jāpieņem, ka jauni cilvēki var drūmi atskatīties atpakaļ, kad dzird krievu valodu, jo viņi kļūdaini, bet droši zina, ka valoda un es esam līdzatbildīgi. Un man jādzīvo tālāk ar atziņu, ka 1940. gada Rīgas jūnija putekļos tie bija krievu tanki, kas atnesa krievu laikus, nevis padomju. Es varu ilgi stāstīt par 30. gadu atklātajiem procesiem Krievijā pret padomju opozīciju un GULAGA iemītnieku miljoniem, es varu rādīt studentiem “Saules nogurdinātos”, viss paliks pa vecam – sāpes būs klātesošas, tās veidos pagātni un tās būs saistītas ar manu klātbūtni Latvijā. Vai sāpes drīkst veidot nākotni, vai tās var pārtraukt? Sāpes noteikti nevar atcelt, nedrīkst aizmirst un nevar paslēpt, bet tās var pārvarēt.
Pārvarēt var tad, ja saproti, ka turpināt ciest nav jēgas, ka viss ir aizgājis, ka nav iespējams atgriezties pagātnē, kaut gan ļoti gribētos, lai saprastu ka es, mēs, mūsējie ir varoņi vai upuri, un citi tikai varmākas un noziedznieki. Šādā sadalījumā mēs apmānām paši sevi, meklējot vienkāršotus skaidrojumus šodienas sarežģītībai.
Tā mēs visi un es pats palikšu ieslodzīts 20. gadsimtā. nespēsim iet tālāk. Tā es nekad nesadzirdēšu Cita sāpes.
Bet es vēlos iet tālāk, man jāiet tālāk – pasaule ir sagatavojusi vēl daudzus skaistus mirkļus ko atminēt, atklāt, izstāstīt citiem. Tāpēc šovakar es, pēc paša iniciatīvas, bet ar vairāku draugu atbalstu, arī skepsi, nolēmu apglabāt 20. gs. sāpes un plaisu vietā veidot savu personīgo tiltu.
Es būvēšu savu tiltu atbilstoši visdrošākajiem celtniecības standartiem – es mēģināšu sadzirdēt citus un lūgt piedošanu.
Es pieņemu, apzinos, izdzīvoju un saprotu ebreju, latviešu, lietuviešu, poļu, romu un visu citu grupu, kopienu un atsevišķu cilvēku sāpes, sēras, skumjas, kas izēd dvēseles un saindē domas, kas bloķē skatu uz nākotni. Tālis Tisenkopfs, kura tekstus es apbrīnoju, ir rakstījis, ka vēl piecdesmit gadus viņa sirds būs ciet – mums nav tik daudz laika. Jāpasteidzas… No padomju varas vardarbības cietām mēs visi.
Ar šo runu es no sirds dziļumiem un ar cerību lūdzu piedot man, lūdzu pieņemt manu personīgu visdziļāko nožēlu par noziegumiem pret Latvijas cilvēkiem, kas mira, cieta, palika garīgi un fiziski sakropļoti, iztukšoti, vientuļi. Es neesmu vainīgs, bet es jūtu atbildību – morālu un pilsonisku – par padomju okupāciju un tās sekām. Es lūdzu piedot, es lūdzu pieņemt mani. Un es aicinu iet tālāk kopā, kopīgi sērojot par visiem aizgājušajiem, bet vienlaikus pieņemot visus, kas veido mūsu Latvijas sabiedrību, ar viņu atmiņām un emocijām, kurām ir tiesības pastāvēt daudzveidīgajā sabiedrībā, kurā brīvība ir visaugstākā vērtība. Es ticu, ka nožēla un žēlsirdība dara brīnumus, spēj pretoties naidam, dusmām un politiskām fantāzijām. Citēšu vienu 18. gadsimta tekstu: “Taisnīgums, ko pavada žēlsirdība, ir cēls.”
Tu šodien esi klāt, un dzirdēji manu lūgumu. Lūdzu neklusē, lūdzu sadzirdi, lūdzu runā ar mani.”

Es sadzirdēju, un arī man ir ko teikt. Turpinājums sekos nākamreiz…

 

 

More than a Wikipedia fact in postcard from Latvia

Do you have a wish list of influential people you would like to meet? High on my list is Vaclav Havel. I wish I could have met him as his prophetic wisdom is on my mind …

This goes out to everyone flirting with authoritative regimes and ideas where truth does not matter, where freedoms can be traded for economic stability and security, where all the problems is someone else’ fault and the rest of the world is threatening place to be isolated from. I wish I could transport you back in time to Latvia on May 4, 1990… There are some hard and painful lessons learned that Latvians can teach!

Today is a national holiday in Latvia. We celebrate and remember the events of May 4 in 1990 as the anniversary of Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia which was adopted by the Supreme Soviet of Latvian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic)

It sounds like a paragraph from Wikipedia but for millions of people from Europe it means something profound, life changing and universally important. It also means the experiences and lessons of the past, the realities and understanding of the present and the dreams and challenges of the future.

Talking about the past, one of our common and real experiences was living in a ‘post-truth’ and often ‘invented truth’ world. I want to quote Vaclav Havel from his famous essay The Power of the Powerless: “Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”

Even the name – Latvia Soviet Socialist Republic. This was not real ‘republic’ with freedom, democracy and the rule of law. This was not real ‘socialism’ where social justice actually means something. And it certainly was not ‘soviet’ which literally should mean that it is the council of the people.

Another experience of this past is again well-expressed by Havel: “The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and  to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life.”

On May 4, 1990 there was such a wide-spread and irreversible feeling that people are tired of living this pseudo-life. There was a large crowd gathering for demonstration and support but it was not anonymous anymore. Each face had a name, each voice mattered, each person felt important realizing that freedom and regained dignity is possible. This truly was the power of the powerless.

These experiences define who I am today. Even though I was very young and don’t remember details, it has a direct link to how I view the world.  We call the year 2016 as the year of ‘post truth’. It is tragic and dangerous and many other adjectives I could add. Havel wisely wrote that “Living within the truth, as humanity’s revolt against an enforced position, is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility. In other words, it is clearly a moral act, not only because one must pay so dearly for it, but principally because it is not self-serving.”

Truth is not self-serving. It answers to a higher master and it serves a higher purpose and it calls everyone to personal responsibility. And this where the future challenge lies – we succumb again and again to pseudo-life, pseudo-justice, pseudo-plurality and other convenient lies.

Today in Latvia we remember where we were and who we were and we talk about where we are and who we are now. And we reflect on where we want to be and how to get there.

Celebrate with us! With love from Rīga

DSCN2511

Latvian:

Šoreiz es netulkošu burtiski, bet pārstāstīšu galveno domu, jo šis ieraksts latviešiem nozīmē pavisam kaut ko citu, kā maniem draugiem un lasītājiem ārzemēs. Mani turpina iedvesmot Vaclavs Havels un viņa pravietiskie vārdi un pasaules redzējums. Plauktā ir viņa grāmatas angļu valodā, un man nav pie rokas latviskais tulkojums (gan jau kāds ir iztulkojis), un pašai nav laika un spēju izdarīt to pienācīgi labi. Tāpēc Havela tiešos citātus lasiet pirmajā daļā.

Es gribēju uzrakstīt kaut ko par 4. maiju, un ko tas nozīmē šodien un tagad. Un tad sāku domāt, cik tā ir tik svarīga un joprojām aktuāla vēstures mācību stunda šodienas sabiedrībai visā pasaulē.

Parasti manu blogu lasa līdzīgi domājošie (kā jau tas mūsdienās pieņemts, mēs lasām to, kas mums glāsta pa spalvai, bet negribam lasīt to, kas izaicina vai aicina paraudzīties no cita skatu punkta), bet mans dialogs jeb saruna ir ar tiem, kuri domā savādāk. Man gribētos, lai šo rakstu izlasa tie, kuri flirtē ar autoratīviem režīmiem, kuri gaida “īsto glābēju” vai “stingro roku”, kas visu sakārtos un atgriezīs vecos labos laikus. Kuri ir gatavi pievērt acis uz patiesības un faktu nomelnošanu un uz vārdu un jēdzienu devalvāciju. Kuri ir gatavi apmainīt brīvību pret ekonomisko ‘labklājību’ un stabilitāti.

Tie vecie labie laiki ir pasaule, kurā var izlikties, jo tā ir norma, un visi izliekas, ka neviens neizliekas. Pasaule, kurā pie visa vienmēr vainīgs kāds cits, un nevienam nav jāuzņemas personīga atbildība. Vecie labie laiki, kuros ārpasaule liekas nedroša un bīstama vieta, no kuras vajag izolēties.

Es vēlētos ielikt manus sarunas biedrus laika mašīnā un atgriezties Latvijā 1990. gada 4. maijā, lai ļautu izjust un piedzīvot to, ko nozīmē atteikties no šādas pseido-dzīves, pseido-patiesības, pseido-drošības un pseido-brīvības. Šie ‘vecie labie laiki’ (jeb Padomju Savienības variantā ‘jaunie labie laiki’) tika Latvijai uzspiesti ar varu, bet cilvēki ar laiku pielāgojās, lai varētu izdzīvot.

Tā mēs izdzīvojām, bet pienāca brīdis, kad ar to bija stipri par maz. Cilvēks nav radīts tādai dzīvei, kaut gan viņš ir spējīgs tā dzīvot. Par to Havels rakstīja sava slavenajā esejā “Nespēcīgo spēks” (The Power of the Powerless). Katrs ir spējīgs kļūt par daļu no anonīmā pūļa, kas vienkārši peld līdzi dzīves straumei.

1990. gada 4. maijā arī bija liels pūlis, bet tas vairs nebija anonīms. Katram cilvēkam bija sava seja, gaidpilna, cerību pilna, un katram bija ko teikt, un katrs būtu gatavs balsot. Es biju skolniece un daudzas nianses neatceros, bet atceros to, ka šo dienu iezīmēja pavisam cita realitāte. It kā tu aizgāji gulēt vienā pasaulē, bet pamodies pavisam citā.

Un pilnīgi skaidrs, ka tajos ‘vecajos labajos laikos’ es nevēlos atgriezties, un nevienam neiesaku. Un esmu gatava brīdināt pa labi un pa kreisi, ka līdzīgus ‘jaunos labos laikus’ arī nevienam nenovēlu. Ne Eiropā, ne Amerikā, ne citos kontinentos… nekur un nevienam.

Priecīgus 4. maija svētkus! Ar sveicieniem no Rīgas