An inspiring day at the cemetery

Some may consider it morbid but Latvians like their cemeteries. Of course, not all Latvians and there is an ongoing debate why we pay so much attention to our grave sites and what does it say about our psyche and values and so forth. Even though things are changing, most people still choose to be buried in the ground (or their families choose it for them).

My mom passed away a few years ago and she is buried in one of the largest cemeteries in Riga. You can get lost there easily. It is so huge. When I was a child, I used to be scared of this place. In Latvia,  cemeteries are usually in the woods. It makes sense since we love our woods and find them the most peaceful and refreshing places. But to a child it felt like a dark and sad forest full of graves and dead people. I thought to myself, “This is where old people end up. Therefore I don’t want to become old.” Now somehow my mom being there makes it more hospitable 🙂 and she was no even that old.

Yesterday we had a big clean-up day in Latvia or call it our annual national “spring cleaning”. It usually takes place in April and people spend one Saturday raking leaves, collecting rubbish, cutting trees, cleaning parks and riversides and other places. I just read on the news that we had a record number of the sites and a record number of participants, in spite of wind and rain.

I joined a crew in the Great Cemetery of Riga which is actually a Memorial park. During the Soviet days the grave sites and chapels and the monuments were left to decay. There was too much of the old “capitalist” and “nationalist” past to remind us of how things used to be. I remember as a child walking by and looking at the chapels. I thought to myself that they must have been very rich people. But we were not supposed to think about rich people, right?

Yesterday I was reminded of things that are too important to forget. For example, the fact that Latvia has always been a multi-cultural place and our culture has been enriched by so many ethnic, religious, linguistic and other social groups. I read inscriptions in German, Russian, English and Latvian. There were pastors and statesmen, architects and actors, writers and educators, soldiers and city mayors…

There were burial sites of many famous and important people in our history who dreamed of Latvia as an independent nation when it was still a part of Russian Empire and who devoted their lives to see this dream come true. People who helped to develop the modern day Latvian language, who collected our folk songs and poems, who helped to build our beautiful country. I think of how their lives continue to impact us even today.

There is something profound about the tradition to write inscriptions on the tombstone which somehow describes the person or something this person would have said to us. Have you ever been asked what you would like to be written on your tombstone?

People had written things like “Treu bis dem Tod” (Faithful to the death)  but my favorite was “Auf wiedersehen” (See you again). Following the week of Easter, I thought it very appropriate someone inscribed this reminder that our lives matter so much more than just ‘here and now’. They matter now and for eternity…

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Spring at the Riga Great Cemetery (photo from internet)

Good Friday and The Cranberries in my head

The keywords  – Ireland, The Cranberries, Good Friday and Jesus – are not equal in importance but they are all part of my story.

I am a big fan of Ireland! I have never lived there (my brother has, my friends and close relatives do) but I have always been fascinated by it. The Celtic art, the history, the music, the land, the people. No, let’s put the hospitality first! Through marriage I even inherited a family name that is well-known in Ireland. Lansdowne road, Lansdowne rugby club and so on.  My American husband is an ‘Irish wanna-be’.

I am a big fan of 90’s rock bands! The Cranberries, Pearl Jam, Jesus Jones and Nirvana to name just a few. While living in Southeast Asia, I discovered how much Asians like to sing cover songs and I cannot count how many times I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirits” or “Zombie“, And every time I heard someone sing “Zombie” in open cafe, bar or street corner, I could not help but think, “They probably have no idea. What if they understood what the Troubles in Northern Ireland were?”

When I first heard this song I did not pay attention to the lyrics either. At the time it was just another popular rock song with great female vocals. We tried to sing as angry and aggressive as Dolores O’Riordan because we felt it was a protest song. But protesting against what? And what is this zombie in your head?

“Another head hangs lowly
Child is slowly taken
And the violence caused such silence
Who are we mistaken

But you see it’s not me
It’s not my family
In your head, in your
Head they are fighting

In your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie”

This song came to my mind recently! Last week I wrote about Syria and my words felt so inadequate, small and flat.  Innocent children keep dying in this war and I hear this angry and aggressive voice  singing again “And the violence caused such silence, Who are we mistaken?”

Here is the important part – I am also a big fan of Jesus of Nazareth! This week Christians around the world are celebrating and remembering the events that are the cornerstone of our faith . For me it has everything to do with what I see around. Borrowing the words of a Croat theologian Miroslav Volf, “A genuinely Christian reflection on social issues must be rooted in the self-giving love of the divine Trinity as manifested on the cross of Christ.” To many people the cross is an offensive symbol but I think of it as a scandal. This kind of humiliation and seeming defeat is the ultimate scandal. Jesus gives himself for the others but the violence does not stop. It takes his life and the powers-to-be seem unshaken.

But there is no way around the cross. There is no modern or post-modern solution to our or any age. M. Volf thinks that modernity creates “culture of social hope” and post-modernity creates “culture of endurance”. Jesus creates neither. Our world is healed by the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the self-giving love.

Going back to the Cranberries and Northern Ireland, I am also a big fan of Good Friday Agreement! What a beautiful name to have for a reconciliation process! Next year it will be 20 years since it was agreed in Belfast on April 10, 1998. Again I am speaking as an outsider who has neither lived through the violence nor faced the challenges and the walls that still exist. But I have much hope and faith and the people in Northern Ireland show us all something crucial.

Our world desperately needs Good Friday agreements. Unless we want to keep singing, “In your head, in your head… zombie, zombie… du, du, du, du”

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The Cranberries (photos from internet)

 

No hiding from horror

My eyes see it and my mind and heart chokes. How many more dead, injured, crippled, orphaned, traumatized and scared children are we going to see in our news? A report after a report, a story after a story. I know this is not new or isolated tragedy and many atrocities are happening in other parts of the world. But Syria alone is enough to shock and shake the global community. What happened to our “Never Again”?

I am just going to vent my frustration, anger, grief and sense of helplessness here. I don’t have any brilliant advice for the United Nations or European Union or USA or Middle Eastern leaders. (I do have a few things to say to Vladimir Putin of Russia but he is not asking for my opinion.) I am no expert on diplomatic, political, military or even humanitarian solutions. I have lots of experience from working as a volunteer in places around the world, including helping people from war zones  but at the moment I feel so distant and powerless. Still I feel deep inside that the little children in Syria would ask me the same question they would ask any adult: “Why is this happening to me? Did you know that this was happening to me? Did you try to help me? Did you try to stop this?”

Chemical attack??? Growing up in Latvia and learning our history, the only time people in Latvia experienced this kind of terror was during WWI when the German army used poisonous gases in the trenches. We are still shocked and horrified and it took place in 2016. That was 100 years ago! Think about it… 100 years!!! And I thought that humanity had learned something.

Yes, of course, the chemical attacks is not the only form of violence that shocks us to core. So is beheading people and torturing them and burning them alive or any other form of attack on human life and dignity. Tragically we have become so desensitized that we accept much of it as normal or inevitable.

I know many people who are doing their best to help children affected by war and suffering. I support these kinds of projects and initiatives as much as possible because there is always something practical we can do. If we want to be the hands and the feet that deliver the aid, there are always possibilities and ways to do it.

Also I don’t underestimate the power of our prayers. I almost hesitated to mention prayer because it can stir strong emotions. “Don’t even mention God. If there is a just and good God, why is he allowing this?” For others, they believe that God cares but they don’t believe that our interceding matters.

I believe that it does matter but I also believe that we need to be ready to be the answer to our own prayers. If we pray for the children to be protected and healed and restored, we can support those who are on the ground in Syria giving this kind of help. Or those who are helping Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. Or helping the Syrian refugees in our own countries.

If we pray for our governments and leaders to do something about it and for people who can make the difference to have the political will, wisdom and courage to make decisions and implement them, then we need to be ready to support those decisions. Or to keep the pressure where the will, strategy and vision is lacking. Which embassy or government building we need to protest in front of?

The headlines say “The Syrian war is the deadliest conflict the 21st century has witnessed so far.” You have to agree that not just this century but this millennium has not started very well. But these children don’t need to hear about historical mistakes, geopolitics, ideologies, ambitions and the rest of our junk. They need real love and justice in action.

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(photos from internet)